Tim Cook really does not want you to sideload iPhone apps

Tim Cook speaking at the IAPP Global Privacy Summit 2022
(Image credit: Apple)

Apple CEO Tim Cook has some privacy concerns. In a speech at Tuesday's IAPP Global Privacy Summit, Cook spoke about the importance of privacy, but also delivered a warning regarding ongoing legislation that could regulate the App Store.

Cook kept his speech vague. He never called out any specific pieces of legislation or lawsuit; in fact, he only went into detail when promoting Apple’s privacy efforts. 

However, if you’ve paid attention to what the United States and the European Union have been doing to Big Tech, you’ll understand his posturing.

Sideloading fears

Cook claimed during the speech that efforts to regulate and enforce healthy competition on the Apple App Store will have negative effects on privacy and security. 

"...policymakers are taking steps, in the name of competition, that would force Apple to let apps onto iPhone that circumvent the App Store through a process called sideloading," said Cook

Apple has a pretty tight grip on what’s allowed on its App Store and has even dealt with lawsuits and kicked certain apps out for breaking its App Store rules.

The European Union recently passed The Digital Markets Act which will force Big Tech to open up their messaging services to work with smaller platforms and points to iMessage as an example. The EU is also pressing for third-party app stores, which is essentially circumventing the App Store and sideloading apps onto the iPhone and iPad.

Cook stated sideloading will have profound consequences.

He claimed that, by sideloading, “data-hungry companies” will be able to skirt hardware security and rules to track people without their consent. It would create vulnerabilities that weren’t there before when Apple had complete control over its online store.

Cook backtracked a little by saying the tech giant does believe in competition and wants to foster that environment, but doesn’t want to undermine user privacy.

Apple’s ongoing security efforts

Cook also pointed out the efforts Apple has made to ensure user privacy. He specifically mentioned that the iPhone automatically encrypts personal data and data stored on the iCloud, which is also end-to-end encrypted. Not even Apple knows what’s in it.

And in 2021, Apple added the ATT (app tracking transparency tool) that forces other apps to ask permission to track user data. Apple is arguably doing more than most tech companies when it comes to user privacy.

However, who's to say that Apple can’t roll out new protections while also fostering a more competitive environment in the App Store at the same time? Plus, Apple users aren’t inherently better protected against bad actors.

AirTags, for example, can be used to track people. And this isn’t malware, it’s a design flaw. Granted, Apple knows about this and is working on fixing this flaw through, for now, software notifications.

Cook's concerns may not be completely unwarranted, but there's still no hard proof that giving people the option to sideload, however risky, will be the end of user privacy.

Cesar Cadenas

Cesar Cadenas has been writing about the tech industry for several years now specializing in consumer electronics, entertainment devices, Windows, and the gaming industry. But he’s also passionate about smartphones, GPUs, and cybersecurity.