Mac certificate check prompts privacy fears among App users

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How much does Apple know about our use of Apps?

Last week Mac users started to complain about a slowdown in performance. Users began noticing that included apps were sometimes taking minutes to launch, and elsewhere there was non-responsiveness and other problems throughout macOS.

The issues seemed to begin close to the time when Apple began rolling out the new version of macOS, Big Sur—but it affected users of other versions of macOS, like Catalina and Mojave.

The reason for the slowdown was that Apple now checks online certificates each time a user opens an app that was not downloaded from the App Store. Users last week noticed that trustd (the macOS process that performs the checks the Apps for authenticity) was attempting to contact a host named ocsp.apple.com but failing repeatedly. Apparently, those Apple servers that process the certificate checks were overloaded when the mass upgrade to Big Sur happened.

The incident caused users to wonder. How much personal data Apple can pull from Macs performing these certificate checks? Moreover, what Apple partners and customers are getting access to this data?

In order to quell these fears, Apple has published a support article that should put users’ minds to rest.

Meet Gatekeeper

macOS includes a technology called Gatekeeper, Apple informs us. Gatekeeper is designed to ensure that only trusted software runs on a user’s Mac.

When a user installs apps from outside the App Store, macOS checks the Developer ID signature. This is to verify that the software is from an identified developer and that it has not been altered.

By default, macOS Catalina and later also requires software to be notarized. This is to ensure that the software running doesn’t contain known malware. As an example, checks are run before opening downloaded software for the first time. In such cases, macOS requests the user’s approval to ensure that the proper program is being launched.

Apple’s assurance statement

The support article issued last week seeks to calm the waters. “Gatekeeper performs online checks to verify if an app contains known malware and whether the developer’s signing certificate is revoked,” Apple assures us.

“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.”

Tip: Is Apple going to consolidate or innovate in end-user computing?