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Mac certificate check stokes fears that Apple logs every app you run

Last Thursday afternoon, Mac users everywhere began complaining of a crippling slowdown when opening apps. The cause: online certificate checks Apple performs each time a user opens an app not downloaded from the App Store. The mass upgrade to Big Sur, it seems, caused the Apple servers responsible for these checks to slow to a crawl.

Apple quickly fixed the slowdown, but concerns about paralyzed Macs were soon replaced by an even bigger worry—the vast amount of personal data Apple, and possibly others, can glean from Macs performing certificate checks each time a user opens an app that didn’t come from the App Store.

For people who understood what was happening behind the scenes, there was little reason to view the certificate checks as a privacy grab. Just to be sure, though, Apple on Monday published a support article that should quell any lingering worries. More about that later—first, let’s back up and provide some background.

The post Your Computer Isn’t Yours was one of the catalysts for the mass concern. It noted that the simple HTML get-requests performed by OCSP were unencrypted. That meant that not only was Apple able to build profiles based on our minute-by-minute Mac usage, but so could ISPs or anyone else who could view traffic passing over the network. (To prevent falling into an infinite authentication loop, virtually all OCSP traffic is unencrypted, although responses are digitally signed.)

Fortunately, less alarmist posts like this one provided more helpful background. The hashes being transmitted weren’t unique to the app itself but rather the Apple-issued developer certificate. That still allowed people to infer when an app such as Tor, Signal, Firefox, or Thunderbird was being used, but it was still less granular than many people first assumed.

The larger point was that, in most respects, the data collection by ocsp.apple.com wasn’t much different from the information that already gets transmitted in real time through OCSP every time we visit a website. To be sure, there are some differences. Apple sees OCSP requests for all Mac apps not downloaded from the App Store, which presumably is a huge number. OCSP requests for other digitally signed software goes to hundreds or thousands of different certificate authorities, and they generally get sent only when the app is being installed.

In short, though, the takeaway was the same: the potential loss of privacy from OCSP is a trade-off we make in an effort to check the validity of the certificate authenticating a website we want to visit or a piece of software we want to install.

In an attempt to further assure Mac users, Apple on Monday published this post. It explains what the company does and doesn’t do with the information collected through Gatekeeper and a separate feature known as notarization, which checks the security even of non-App Store apps. The post states:

Gatekeeper performs online checks to verify if an app contains known malware and whether the developer’s signing certificate is revoked. We have never combined data from these checks with information about Apple users or their devices. We do not use data from these checks to learn what individual users are launching or running on their devices.

Notarization checks if the app contains known malware using an encrypted connection that is resilient to server failures.

These security checks have never included the user’s Apple ID or the identity of their device. To further protect privacy, we have stopped logging IP addresses associated with Developer ID certificate checks, and we will ensure that any collected IP addresses are removed from logs.

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