Tim Cook: Sideloading iPhone apps is bad for digital privacy

Data-intensive apps, third-party cookies, and hackers often come to mind when you think of the biggest threats to user privacy. But according to Apple CEO Tim Cook, there’s another threat that deserves public attention: app sideloading.

On Tuesday, Cook used his keynote address at the IAPP Global Privacy Summit to criticize legislative efforts to force Apple to adopt sideloading apps for iPhones.

“Proponents of these regulations argue that no harm would be done simply by giving people choice. But removing a more secure option will leave users with less choice, not more,” Cook said in his remarks.

According to Cook, sideloading apps risks undermining any efforts the company is making to protect users from the iOS App Store, which is currently the only way iPhones can download third-party apps.

“Here in Washington and elsewhere, policymakers are taking action in the name of competition that would force Apple to leave apps on iPhone that bypass the App Store through a process called sideloading,” Cook said. “This means that data-hungry companies could circumvent our privacy rules and re-track our users against their will.

“It would also allow malicious actors to bypass the comprehensive security protections we have in place, putting them in direct contact with our users,” he added.

To demonstrate his point, Cook pointed out how Android malware can circulate because the operating system allows sideloading. This allows Android users to install apps from third-party app stores and other sources, instead of just going through the Google Play Store.

“Early on in the pandemic, for example, there were reports of people downloading what appear to be legitimate COVID tracing apps only to have their devices infected with ransomware. But these victims were not iPhone users. Because the scheme directly targeted those who can install apps from websites that lack App Store defenses,” Cook said.

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Its other concern is that sideloading will unleash a number of rival iOS app stores built with fewer privacy safeguards in mind. This could make it easier for data-hungry companies to exploit consumers.

“Now I want to say something very clear to all of you. Apple believes in competition,” he added. “If we are forced to leave unverified apps on the iPhone, the unintended consequences will be profound. And when we see this, we feel compelled to speak up.”

Cook’s position is hardly a surprise. A year ago, Apple released a 16-page document that supported many of the same points. In November, Apple SVP Craig Federighi also spoke to a European audience about the privacy dangers of app sideloading. Nonetheless, the EU is set to pass landmark legislation that could force Apple to allow sideloading of apps on iOS. US senators have also introduced an antitrust bill that proposes to do the same.

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