Privacy has been a renewed focus with Apple’s next operating system update. One new feature in iOS 13 that seems centered on user privacy could have extensive consequences for messaging and online call apps.
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In iOS 13, Apple will not allow apps to run Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) in the background when the programs are not actively in use. Many apps that offer VoIP services currently run in the background, and they will need to be rewritten to adjust to Apple’s upcoming rules. The change is slated to roll out when iOS 13 release in September. However, app developers will get a grace period, and they have until April 2020 to comply.
Apple has been putting privacy at the front and center of its business, especially as many tech companies make headlines for data breaches or misuse of personal information. iOS 13 will include multiple updates centered on giving users more control over how and when apps can get their information, such as one-time location sharing and a “Sign in with Apple” system.
Messaging apps that offer VoIP calling (Voice over Internet Protocol) typically utilize an ‘always-on’ behavior in order to answer calls more quickly by continuously running in the background, but Apple wants that to stop. As reported by The Information, Apple is implementing a change in iOS 13 – the upcoming version of its mobile operating system for iPhones – that will restrict background access of the calling functionality from all messaging apps, including Facebook’s Messenger and WhatsApp.
Why the change?
There are multiple reasons for the change, but the main two relate to device performance and user privacy. Clamping down on the apps that can run on a device in the background should help improve iPhone battery life by reducing processing demand, which should also nudge up its overall performance.
The other, and more pressing issue, is related to what else these apps can do while they’re still silently running after the user thinks they have been closed. In the past, concerns have been raised about the potential for companies to use their apps to collect data when running in the background, and some were guilty of doing exactly that.
In 2015, Facebook was found to be abusing its VoIP capabilities in its main iOS app in order to run in the background, even when permissions to do so were explicitly disabled. Furthermore, Facebook had already launched the Messenger app by this point and didn’t even need VoIP functionality.
While Facebook-developed apps such as Messenger and WhatsApp are some of the more prominent to be impacted by this new change, others such as Snapchat and WeChat will also be affected. WhatsApp in particular will apparently have to undergo a major overhaul, as “people familiar with the issue” told The Information that the app’s end-to-end encryption – along with several other features – rely on this background operation.
A spokesperson for Facebook told The Information that it didn’t collect any data via this method, clarifying that, “We are using the PushKit VoIP API to deliver a world-class, private messaging experience, not for the purpose of collecting data.” While the change will be implemented in the expected September rollout of iOS 13, Apple is providing some leeway to app developers, giving them until April 2020 to comply. If they don’t, it might be safe to presume these apps could be removed from the App Store.