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New Safari privacy features on MacOS Mojave and iOS 12 crack down on nosy websites

Apple helps lead some browser makers to rein in website tracking.

Apple's Safari browser runs on iPhones, iPads and Macs.

Apple's Safari browser runs on iPhones, iPads and Macs.

Apple

When Apple announced a new Safari privacy feature last year called intelligent tracking protection, advertisers accustomed to tracking your behavior online squealed. Get ready for some more squealing.

At Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference, the company showed some new restrictions it's imposing on online tracking technology. For one thing, when you use websites with buttons to like and share stories, Safari will intervene to prevent those tools from slurping in your behavioral data unless you permit it.

"These can be used to track you, whether you click on them or not. So this year, we are shutting that down," said Craig Federighi, Apple's senior vice president of software engineering, speaking to thousands of developers at WWDC in San Jose, California, and many more people watching the keynote address online. He showed how Safari will present an alert saying, in one example, "Do you want to allow Facebook.com to use cookies and website data?"

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For another thing, Safari will reduce the amount of information about its abilities that Safari shares with websites -- things like plugins and fonts you have installed. That makes it harder for data trackers to fingerprint the combination of parameters that can help fingerprint you for tracking purposes. The new features are due to arrive in the fall on the version of Safari that'll ship with the next versions of Apple's core software, MacOS 10.14 Mojave for Macs and iOS 12 for iPhones and iPads

Apple is helping to lead the web privacy push, but it's hardly alone. Mozilla is adding a number of new privacy features to its Firefox browser this year, and Brave Software -- even more aggressive about privacy -- is taking new measures to keep your online information your own. Privacy has rarely been a top reason for people to buy or choose software, but it's rising up the priority list as revelations like the Facebook scandal involving Cambridge Analytica data harvesting show just how lousy our online privacy is.

Apple software SVP Craig Federighi describes how Safari in MacOS Mojave will require websites to obtain your permission before storing personal data.

Apple software SVP Craig Federighi describes how Safari in MacOS Mojave will require websites to obtain your permission before storing personal data.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

"Great to see Apple innovating hardest among 'big four' on privacy," Brave Chief Executive and former Firefox leader Brendan Eich tweeted Monday after Apple's keynote, referring to the four most powerful browsers -- Google Chrome, Safari, Firefox and Microsoft Edge.

Eich, the creator of the JavaScript programming language that enables not only sophisticated websites but also online tracking, has acknowledged the technology's problems. In his tweet, he said he's open to new web standards work to figure out common practices.

Cracking down on cookies

A lot of the crackdown focuses on third-party software delivered along with the rest of a website when your browser loads it. For example, third parties can supply ads, share and like buttons, stock quotes, discussion forums, and more.

To track you, those third-party tools -- along with the website publisher itself -- can store text files called cookies on your browser. That's handy for a lot of situations, like a website knowing you're still logged in when you come back a day later, but it also provides a way to track you.

Apple's intelligent tracking protection last year cracked down on third-party cookies and, in some cases, first-party cookies, too. This year, Apple is tightening the screws more with intelligent tracking protection 2.0, which is even less generous about keeping cookies around for websites that Apple has determined has tracking abilities.

Tracker collusion

The new tracking protection ability also tries to stop what Apple developers call "tracker collusion" and puts any colluding website in the doghouse.

"Through our research, we found that cross-site trackers help each other identify the user," said John Wilander, Apple's tracking protection leader, in a blog post. "ITP 2.0 detects this behavior ... and classifies all involved parties as trackers."

While some companies, most notably Google and Facebook, profit from personal data, Apple is trying to give privacy more importance.

"We believe your private data should remain private," Federighi said, "not because you've done something wrong or have something to hide, but because you have a lot of sensitive data on your devices and we think you should be the the one in charge of who sees it."

Cambridge Analytica: Everything you need to know about Facebook's data mining scandal.

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