With the release of Apple Pay and the recent celebrity photo leak from iCloud, Apple is making an effort to shore up its privacy reputation. Tim Cook published a letter this week pointing out that Apple doesn’t try to capitalize on your data (the way Google, Facebook and others do), and there’s a new dedicated privacy subsection of the Apple website. But if actions speak louder than words, the measure that seems most convincing is a change in iOS 8's encryption that will keep Apple itself out of your business.
In the new mobile operating system, all you have to do is add a passcode (which you should already have anyway!) to opt in to encryption that denies Apple special access to your data. Apple announced on Wednesday night that even if it gets a warrant from law enforcement for your data, it will be unable to comply if you have this encryption enabled.
In the wake of NSA spying revelations, tech companies felt a backlash when it became clear that they were forking over user data to U.S. law enforcement without much resistence. By locking personal data down so companies themselves can't access it, they sidestep the issue of whether or not to comply, and avoid being accused of obstructing justice.
As the Washington Post explains, the difference in iOS 8 is that adding a passcode automatically opts users in to the new encryption. In previous versions of iOS, Apple maintained some backdoors into passcode-protected devices. In the company's new privacy section, it says:
On devices running iOS 8, your personal data such as photos, messages (including attachments), email, contacts, call history, iTunes content, notes, and reminders is placed under the protection of your passcode. Unlike our competitors, Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data. So it's not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8.
Since iOS adoption rates tend to be high, it won't be long before Apple has very little access to devices running iOS. Whatever you're texting about, Apple won't be the one to rat you out.
Update, September 18, 2014, 4:30 p.m.: Now Google is announcing that its next Android release, currently in beta and codenamed L, will have options for enabling encryption that prevents Google from accessing personal data on an Android device. As with Apple's iOS 8 announcement, this decision means that Google will not be able to comply with law enforcement requests for user data when that user has the encryption enabled. In a statement to the Washington Post, Google also noted that many Android devices have had this capability since 2011. But now the company will surface it more prominently and make it ubiquitous so more users can take advantage of it.