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Apple: You share iCloud data, and we'll make iPhones smarter

The company believes privacy is important, but services like Siri work better when a company can analyze real-world data.

Apple's iOS 10.3 software describes how Apple wants to gather iCloud data to improve services.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Apple long has argued in favor of customer privacy, but the company wants to do more with your personal data so services like Siri voice recognition can get smarter.

A new option in its iOS 10.3 software, released earlier this week for beta testing, asks iPhone and iPad users to share iCloud account data. iCloud services include file storage, email, calendars, photo management, password synchronization, and music and video library management.

Privacy is a thorny issue for tech companies. It sounds nice in principle, but it's technically complicated. And until an FBI investigator arrives, we're more likely to care about how well our phones steer us around traffic and flag important messages than we are about whether a tech company's data center is peering into our personal lives.

Apple argues it's possible to have both good services and good privacy. Indeed, it touted privacy even with earlier versions of iOS that already gather data about how we use iPhones and iPads.

"Analysis of data from your iCloud account is undertaken only after the data has undergone privacy-preserving techniques such as differential privacy," a new analytics section of the phone's privacy settings says. "Analysis of such data will allow Apple to improve intelligent features such as Siri and other similar or related services."

Privacy has been a point of pride for Apple in its attempt to get its products to stand out. In 2015, Chief Executive Tim Cook criticized companies like Google that are "gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it."

But guess what -- that sort of data can improve driving directions, spam filtering, speech recognition, movie recommendations, autocorrect typing predictions and many other advanced services that make phones so useful. In today's artificial intelligence era, those services are increasingly important.

Apple uses technology called differential privacy that statistically muddies data sets to obscure details about individuals while still benefitting from the ability to analyze that user data. In earlier versions of iOS, Apple sought "diagnostic and usage information" to improve products and services, but now Apple is specifically calling out usage of iCloud account data and offering a little more detail on how sharing can improve "language models and other intelligent features."

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