Though third-party developers have been quietly gathering data on iOS users as their apps run in the background, Apple is reportedly stopping the practice in iOS 13, forcing Facebook and other companies to significantly change their apps. The change was reported today by The Information, but has been awaited in Apple’s mobile operating system for quite some time.
In prior versions of iOS, third-party communications applications have relied on PushKit, a background VoIP process that enabled them to detect incoming calls without the app being reopened — a user convenience that some developers exploited to collect data even when their apps weren’t actively in use. According to the report, iOS 13 will restrict the background process so it can only be used for internet-based calls, and will cut off background data collection, a change that is expected to heavily affect Facebook’s WhatsApp, as well as requiring rebuilding of other apps including Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, and WeChat.
Users have cited problems with iOS background tasks for years, with numerous early reports pointing to Facebook’s core app as the source of unexpected battery drain. Facebook subsequently split off its own live communications features into Facebook Messenger, while other apps — including the aforementioned WhatsApp, Snapchat, and WeChat — have continued to grow in popularity, in part because of the ease of sharing encrypted content with friends and business contacts. WhatsApp apparently relies in part on the PushKit feature for its end-to-end encryption.
For its part, Facebook has denied that it’s using PushKit for collecting data, but suggests that it’s working to address the issue. “The changes to the upcoming iOS releases are not insignificant,” a spokesperson told The Information, “but we are in conversations with Apple on how best to address” them.
Apple is implementing the change in iOS 13, which is currently in beta with an expected September release date, but will apparently give developers until April 2020 to update their software for compliance. Once major apps have been updated, users will enjoy improved privacy, as well as potentially major battery life improvements, depending on how much energy the communications apps were using in the background.