Apple defends the way it shares Safari browser data with Google and Tencent

Security analysts and journalists over the weekend expressed concern that Apple was being cavalier with people's privacy.

Ian Sherr Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
2 min read

Apple markets its devices as focused on privacy.

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Apple is rebutting press reports that it sends some users' private browsing data to Google and the Chinese tech company Tencent, saying that it safeguards people's information in its own systems and doesn't send most easily identifiable website information to other companies.

The concerns stemmed from reports over the weekend that focused on Apple's "fraudulent website warning" system. The feature, which is built into Apple's Safari web browser for Mac computers, iPhones and iPads, is designed to warn people when they visit sites that hackers create to trick them into sharing login passwords for banks, email and social media. The service, which is turned on by default but can be disabled, is powered in part by Google's decade-old safe browsing service that keeps track of bad websites, as well as Tencent's equivalent in China.

In Apple's documentation, the iPhone maker said its Safari browser "may send information calculated from the website address to Google Safe Browsing and Tencent Safe Browsing to check if the website is fraudulent. These browsing providers may also log your IP address."

But in a statement, Apple said it actually doesn't send information to Google or Tencent. Instead, it receives a list of bad websites from both companies and then uses it to protect people as they surf the web. Apple sometimes obscures the information about the website people visit if it requests more information to check whether a questionable website is malicious. The URL, or website address being checked, "is never shared with a safe browsing provider," Apple said in the statement, provided earlier to Bloomberg

But, Apple said, the internet or IP address of the person's browser may be shared with Google or Tencent. For people concerned about their privacy, the service can be turned off in Safari preferences on the iPhone or Mac.

The episode is a reminder of people's growing worries about how tech companies use their information, and where it's transmitted and stored. After years of companies like Facebook poorly handling user data, people are increasingly scrutinizing companies' behavior. That includes the way they do business with companies in China, where human rights concerns have sparked weeks-long protests in Hong Kong.

Apple in particular has made privacy and security a central part of its marketing, arguing that its devices are among the safest in the industry. It's also begun building features into its Safari browser to block sites like Facebook from tracking users across the web.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has said he believes privacy is "ingrained in the Constitution," but that he's worried about how other companies have worked to collect information on us. "We think regulation is necessary," he said in March. "It's not just a marketing thing; this is who we are."

Originally published Oct. 14, 11:49 a.m. PT.
Update, 12:05 p.m. PT: Adds more information about privacy settings and what is or isn't transmitted to Google and Tencent.

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