Apple

Yosemite's Spotlight sends searches back to Apple, but privacy is protected

Recent media reports have suggested that Yosemite's Spotlight searching feature might be a privacy risk. Here's why there's nothing to worry about.

Yosemite
Image: Apple

Apple's new Yosemite operating system includes a nice upgrade to OS X's Spotlight search functionality. Previously, Spotlight would only search local files on a particular computer — email, documents, contacts — which, while useful for finding files, is less useful in a world of Google and Wikipedia.

Now, Apple's engineers have built a variety of different internet searches into Spotlight.

Searches in Spotlight include results from Wikipedia, Apple Maps, the iTunes, iBooks and App Stores, movie show times, news articles, as well as a unit conversion. Spotlight also sends searches to Microsoft's Bing search engine.

Of course, like any online search engine technology, Apple requires that user queries be sent across the internet for computation and to return results.

However, thanks to a slightly histrionic article in the Washington Post, many users now believe that Apple is tracking their location and what they're searching for.

"Apple has begun automatically collecting the locations of users and the queries they type when searching for files with the newest Mac operating system, a function that has provoked backlash for a company that portrays itself as a leader on privacy."

However, according to Apple, the company does not store any searches, nor can it identify which users are making the searches beyond searches made within 15 minutes.

Apple executives have repeatedly attempted to distance itself from the targeted advertising that Google uses to make the vast majority of its income. Google tracks its users search queries and internet travel in order to deliver better quality search results (and advertising).

Apple, on the other hand, makes all its money from selling products and services. The company says that any data it collects on user searches are solely to improve search results and that any searches sent to Apple are heavily obfuscated to make it impossible for Apple or its search partners like Bing to determine who sent them.

In a statement sent to iMore:

"We are absolutely committed to protecting our users' privacy and have built privacy right into our products. For Spotlight Suggestions we minimize the amount of information sent to Apple. Apple doesn't retain IP addresses from users' devices. Spotlight blurs the location on the device so it never sends an exact location to Apple. Spotlight doesn't use a persistent identifier, so a user's search history can't be created by Apple or anyone else. Apple devices only use a temporary anonymous session ID for a 15-minute period before the ID is discarded."

So, Apple doesn't keep track of searches users make beyond 15 minutes, and the location of the device is only given in general terms to deliver useful and relevant local queries like search results, without giving Apple your precise location.

Even more absurd, as far as the privacy dust-up goes, is that Apple routinely gets precise location data via its Apple Maps application to deliver driving directions.

With the launch of OS X Yosemite, Apple was public with exactly how it collects data with Spotlight and how it's used. In a Knowledge Base article on its support website, Apple explained explicitly how to turn off Spotlight searches:

"If you do not want your Spotlight search queries and Spotlight Suggestions usage data sent to Apple, you can turn off Spotlight Suggestions. Simply deselect the checkboxes for both Spotlight Suggestions and Bing Web Searches in the Search Results pane of Spotlight preferences in System Preferences on your Mac. If you turn off Spotlight Suggestions and Bing Web Searches, Spotlight will search the contents of only your Mac.

"You can turn off Location Services for Spotlight Suggestions in the Privacy pane of System Preferences on your Mac by clicking Details next to System Services, then deselecting Spotlight Suggestions. If you turn off Location Services on your Mac, your precise location will not be sent to Apple. To deliver relevant search suggestions, Apple may use the IP address of your Internet connection to approximate your location by matching it to a geographic region."

So, there you have it. Spotlight is only used to provide useful search data and it's relatively easy to opt out, though the Spotlight function (like any search engine) is much better if you allow Apple to receive your queries.

Are you concerned about using Spotlight and having your search queries sent to Apple? Let us know in the comments below.

About Jordan Golson

Jordan Golson is an Apple Columnist for TechRepublic. He also writes about technology and automobiles for WIRED and MacRumors. He has worked for Apple Retail twice and has been writing about technology since 2007.

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