The 10 biggest Apple news stories of 2020
2020 was a difficult and painful year for just about everyone, but in the midst of all of the chaos and upheaval, it was also a very important year for Apple. In something of a reversal of the general trend for last year, a lot of that Apple news was actually good news as well!
Apple stands firm on encryption
In January, Apple faced heavy criticism from U.S. Attorney General William Barr and several lawmakers over the company’s stance on encryption: namely, that there was no way to help the FBI access a suspected terrorist’s iPhone without also undermining the security and privacy of millions of iOS users. Apple reiterated its long-held position that there is “no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys” — which, incidentally, is a view shared by many security researchers and digital forensics experts as well. While the move did little to endear Cupertino to its critics in Washington, their principled (and technically accurate) stand was good news for iPhone users everywhere.
Sign in with Apple rolls out
When Sign in with Apple was announced at WWDC 2019, it was hailed as a huge win for users, since it provided a privacy-friendly alternative to logging into apps and accounts with Facebook or Google. The full rollout of Sign in with Apple, however, turned out to be a frustratingly slow process, since developers needed time to integrate the feature into their apps. But by the end of April 2020, many devs were finally ready for the new sign-in method, and began making it available in their apps — marking a major (and eagerly awaited) milestone for user privacy!
Apple and Google team up to save lives
COVID-19 was an unprecedented challenge for the public health sector, and the sheer scale of the pandemic has hampered basic epidemiological practices like contact tracing. Early in the year, Apple and Google partnered to develop a secure contact tracing framework based on Bluetooth and cryptographic protections. The hope was that the cross-platform framework could be used by public health authorities to build mobile-based exposure notification apps — tools that would automate the work of contact tracing while at the same time preserving user privacy and anonymity. In the end, the joint effort yielded positive results: Multiple countries and U.S. states have now developed COVID-19 exposure notification apps based on the framework.
macOS gets a new number (and more)
As expected, the Mac received its annual OS upgrade, but this time around there was a big change to the numbering: Apple finally moved macOS from version 10.x to version 11, marking a new era for Mac users. The release of macOS 11 Big Sur was not without issues, and included a controversial change that impacted (some would say “broke”) third-party macOS firewalls. But on the whole, Big Sur was seen as a good thing for users, and introduced some important new features, including a number of security enhancements like Signed System Volume, the continued deprecation of kernel extensions, improvements to Safari, and a more efficient update process.
Safari gets a major overhaul
While Big Sur and iOS 14 got most of the attention this year, the latest version of Safari also contained some significant security and privacy enhancements. Safari 14 will provide users with a Privacy Report tool that lets them see how websites are trying to track them, and also which trackers are the most common across all sites. Users will also have fine-grained control over the permissions that they grant to browser extensions, which provides a number of privacy and security benefits. Safari now supports password monitoring as well: People who use their browser to store passwords will be told if they’re using a weak password, or a password that has appeared in a known data breach.
Apple Silicon Macs arrive
In November, Apple released the first of its Apple Silicon Macs — Macs powered by the new, ARM-based M1 processor — at their One More Thing event. Early reports have been encouraging, with many users confirming Apple’s performance claims…the new Macs appear to be very fast indeed! But the switch to ARM-based processors isn’t just about speed: As the WWDC20 developer sessions confirmed, there are some important under-the-hood security benefits of ARM chips as well. All in all, Apple’s decision to make their own processors for the Mac (as they already do for the iPhone and iPad) looks like it will be good news for users going forward.
iOS 14 doubles down on privacy
There were enough privacy changes in iOS 14 to fill a podcast, and one of them even got media attention before the public release! Thanks to the new clipboard notification feature, iOS 14 beta testers discovered that TikTok and other apps were constantly accessing the system clipboard — the first sign that app transparency was going to be a big part of Apple’s latest mobile OS. iOS 14 also displays a recording indicator whenever the mic or camera is active, and each app now has a privacy information page in the App Store that explains how it collects and uses personal data. In addition, iOS 14 offers users better control over how they share photos, location data, and network information with apps. That’s a lot of privacy features already, but we haven’t even mentioned the biggest one yet…
Apple picks (another) fight with Facebook
Arguably the most important of the new iOS 14 privacy features, and worthy of a standalone entry on this list, has to do with app tracking — and it has Facebook up in arms. In iOS 14, users will be able to turn off app tracking globally, with a single toggle switch, effectively denying all apps on their device the ability to collect personal data. Understandably, this move has alarmed Facebook and other companies that track users for advertising purposes. In recent weeks, Facebook has even resorted to taking out full-page ads in newspapers criticizing the change, and claiming that they are “standing up to Apple” on behalf of small businesses everywhere. Apple appears unmoved by Facebook’s protestations, though, and the new feature is expected to become mandatory for all apps in early 2021.
Rumors of an Apple search engine
This one is definitely more of a potential bit of good news, but it’s still interesting enough to mention here: In October, analysts reported a significant uptick in Apple web crawler activity, and speculated that the company might be attempting to build a native search engine that could one day compete with the likes of Google. It wasn’t just the Applebot activity that led them to this conclusion: Apple observers also cited changes to the way iOS handled search queries, executive hiring decisions at the company, and even recent political developments in the United States. While no one knows for sure what Apple is up to, it’s fun to imagine what an Apple-powered, privacy-friendly alternative to Google might look like!
Apple and Cloudflare fix DNS
In late 2020, the web security and infrastructure firm Cloudflare announced that they had developed a new DNS standard in collaboration with Apple engineers. The proposed standard is called Oblivious DNS over HTTPS (ODoH), and could one day lead to a safer, more private Internet, because its implementation would help put an end to snooping and monitoring by ISPs, governments, and other third parties. Although still in the early stages of testing and development, ODoH has already received enthusiastic support from at least one major web browser vendor, and the first speed tests have been promising — giving us all one more reason to hope for better days ahead!