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Apple Introduces Safety Check An IPhone Privacy Feature For Victims Of Domestic Abuse, Worldwide Developers Conference(WWDC) 2022

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Quickly revoke shared access from your iPhone data. At WWDC 2022 on Monday, Apple announced a new feature in iOS 16 called Safety Check that centers on the privacy (and safety) of victims of domestic abuse.

Iphone users can quickly review who they’ve shared access with and what they’re sharing, such as location, calendar, and specific apps with Safety Check. Users can also quickly revoke access to others to protect their privacy.

Safety Check displays a list of contacts a user has shared access with and a rundown of what is being shared with them. For example, users can stop sharing their location with an individual user from this list.

This new security feature also comes with an emergency reset option, which immediately resets access for all people and apps you’ve shared with. This includes resetting system privacy permissions on all apps, stopping location sharing, and protecting access to messages which may be going to multiple devices.

In the age of the cloud, privacy and security issues are paramount. And Safety Check actually seems very well thought out so far.

If you’ve experienced domestic or intimate partner violence, you can call the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1−800−799−7233. Additional resources are available on its website.

Among the long-requested and popular new features Apple plans to bring to the iPhone this fall, like undo send for iMessage texts and emails as well as a function to find and remove duplicate photos, is one that isn’t just a convenience — using it could mean life or death.

On Monday, Apple announced Safety Check, a new feature within the settings of an iPhone or iPad , designed to aid domestic violence victims. The setting, coming this fall with iOS 16, is designed to help someone quickly cut ties with a potential abuser. Safety Check does this by helping a person quickly see with whom they’re automatically sharing sensitive info like their location or photos. But in an emergency, it also lets a person simply and quickly disable access and information sharing to every device other than the one in their hands.

Notably, the app also includes a prominent button at the top right of the screen, labeled Quick Exit. As the name implies, it’s designed to help a potential victim quickly hide that they’d been looking at Safety Check, in case their abuser doesn’t allow them privacy. If the abuser reopens the settings app, where Safety Check is kept, it’ll start at the default general settings page.

“Many people share passwords and access to their devices with a partner,” Katie Skinner, a privacy engineering manager at Apple, said at the company’s WWDC event Monday. “However, in abusive relationships, this can threaten personal safety and make it harder for victims to get help.”

Safety Check, and the careful way in which it was coded, are part of a larger effort among tech companies to stop their products from being used as tools of abuse. It’s also the latest sign of Apple’s willingness to wade into building technology to tackle sensitive topics. And though the company says it’s earnest in its approach, it’s drawn criticism for some of its moves. Last year, the company announced efforts to detect child exploitation imagery on some of its phones, tablets and computers, a move that critics worried could erode Apple’s commitment to privacy.

Learning, but much to do

The tech industry has been working with victims organizations for over a decade, seeking ways to adopt safety mindsets within their products. Advocates say that in the past few years in particular, many safety team has grown within the tech giants, staffed in some cases with people from the nonprofit world who worked on the issues the tech industry was taking on. 

Apple started consulting with some victims rights advocates about Safety Check last year, asking for input and ideas for how to best build the system. 

“We are starting to see recognition that there is a corporate or social responsibility to ensure your apps can’t be too simply misused,” Karen Bentley, CEO of Wesnet. And she said that’s particularly tough because, as technology has evolved to become easier to use, so has the potential for it to be a tool of abuse.

That’s part of why she says Apple’s Safety Check is “brilliant,” because it can quickly and easily separate someone’s digital information and communications from their abuser. “If you’re experiencing domestic violence you’re likely to be experiencing some of that violence in technology,” she said.

Though Safety Check has moved from an idea into test software and will be made widely available with the iOS 16 suite of software updates for iPhones and iPads in the fall, Apple said it plans more work on these issues. 

Unfortunately, Safety Check doesn’t extend to ways abusers might be tracking people using devices they don’t own — such as if someone slips one of Apple’s $29 AirTag trackers into their coat pocket or onto their car to stalk them. Safety Check also isn’t designed for phones set up under child accounts, for people under the age of 13, though the feature’s still in testing and could change.

“Unfortunately, abusers are persistent and are constantly updating their tactics,” said Erica Olsen, project director for Safety Net a program from the National Network to End Domestic Violence that trains companies, community groups and governments on how to improve victim safety and privacy. “There will always be more to do in this space.”

Apple said it’s expanding training with its employees who interact with customers, including sales people in its stores, to know how features like Safety Check work and be able to teach it when appropriate. The company has also created guidelines for its support staff to help identify and help potential victims.

In one instance, for example, AppleCare teams are being taught to listen for when an iPhone owner calls expressing concern that they don’t have control over their own device or their own iCloud account. In another, AppleCare can guide someone on how to remove their Apple ID from a family group.

Apple also updated its personal safety user guide in January to instruct people how to reset and regain control of an iCloud account that might be compromised or being used as a tool for abuse.

Craig Federighi, Apple’s head of software engineering, said the company will continue expanding its personal safety features as part of its larger commitment to its customers. “Protecting you and your privacy is, and will always be, the center of what we do,” he said.

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