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Why Apple iOS 16’s Safety Check feature is a departure, and an acknowledgement

When Apple talked about ‘Safety Check’, it was also an acknowledgement… that our smartphones can pose a safety risk for women in abusive relationships.

Apple WWDC 2022, Apple iOS 16, Apple iOS 16 Safety CheckApple's Safety Check feature is design to help women who are escaping abusive relationships. (Image credit: Apple WWDC livestream)

Typically when companies talk about privacy and security for their software, their focus is geared toward most users. So when Apple talked about ‘Safety Check’ it was certainly a departure. It was also an acknowledgement… that our smartphones can pose a safety risk for women in abusive relationships.

Apple’s feature comes at a time when there’s a rather tumultuous debate about who constitutes the ‘perfect domestic abuse’ victim thanks to the Depp-Heard defamation trial. There’s also been concern that Apple’s own AirTags are being used to stalk women. But debates aside, there’s no doubt that women in abusive relationships, who are trying to break away are at risk. At times, the risks might even be life-threatening.

In such instances, a smartphone can then become an easy tracking tool, it can also become a tool to carry out other forms of abuse. There are several reports of ‘stalkerware’ apps being used by abusive partners to keep a track of their partner’s digital habits. The information can often be used to control victims further.

So in comes Safety Check, which ensures that when a woman does decide to break away, at least her phone cannot be used against her. The idea here is to reduce any control or advantage the abuser might enjoy by accessing the victim’s device. According to Apple, Safety Check will ensure that victims can quickly review their settings and reset the access they might have granted others.

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Apple iOS 16’s Safety Check feature is designed to help women to get safety quickly, and ensures their device cannot be used to track them.

This could include shared passwords to the iCloud account, which does contain access to a lot of information such as photos, messages, etc. Most importantly Safety Check will also disable location sharing via Find My. This bit is really important because an abuser could use this information to track a victim’s last known location and find them. Apple in its presentation said the idea was to ensure that victims can quickly cut ties and get to safety.

Apple says “Safety Check stops sharing location with others via Find My and resets the system privacy permissions for all apps.” Further, it will sign the user out of iCloud on all other devices and restrict “messages and FaceTime to the device in your hand.” The user would also be able to audit permissions granted to apps and see which ones need to be revoked.

Of course, how this feature actually rolls out still remains to be seen. The effectiveness can only be determined once it is made available on all iPhones. It would have been interesting if Apple had also extended this to its macOS, though it might eventually do this as well. Of course, even with these steps, there’s no guarantee that abusers won’t find other ways to extract information from a victim’s device. But still, this is an important first step taken by Apple. And hopefully, other smartphone makers, including Google will take note and offer something similar.

First published on: 07-06-2022 at 05:45:19 pm
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