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Apple Capturing Spotlight Search Query Data, Sharing With Bing
Users can turn off data sharing but will not get web results.
An improved Spotlight Search is a central feature of Apple’s new Yosemite operating system for the Mac. As reported when Yosemite was announced in June, Spotlight searches your desktop but also provides web search suggestions from Bing. There are a number of structured data sources such as Wikipedia, Maps and Fandango that also show up in results.
Bing’s role in Spotlight wasn’t immediately clear at the time of the original announcement but was later confirmed. Google remains the default search engine in Safari even though Bing has become the default search provider for Spotlight Search. Bing didn’t “replace” Google in Spotlight Search since there was no web search component to Spotlight pre-Yosemite.
This parallels and follows Apple’s adoption of Bing for Siri web search support in iOS 8.
Whether you initiate a Spotlight Search from the upper right or by using a keyboard shortcut the Spotlight Search module now appears in the center of the screen. The query generates a “federated” list of results from your PC, structured sources and the web:
Spotlight pulls information from new sources like Wikipedia, news sites, Maps, iTunes, movie listings, and more. It’s smart about which information it returns, so you’ll find just what you’re looking for, faster than ever. Spotlight has been redesigned to appear front and center when you open it. And results appear in rich, interactive previews that let you view a document, send an email, and even make a phone call just by clicking.
One interesting thing that has emerged is the fact that Apple will be capturing web search query data and location and sharing some of it with Microsoft, according to documentation associated with Yosemite:
When you have Spotlight Suggestions enabled in Safari, your search queries, the Spotlight Suggestions you select, and related usage data will be sent to Apple. If you have Location Services on your Mac turned on, when you make a search query to Safari with Spotlight Suggestions enabled the approximate location of your Mac at that time will be sent to Apple. Location, search queries, and usage information sent to Apple will be used by Apple only to make Spotlight Suggestions more relevant and to improve other Apple products and services. By using Spotlight Suggestions in Safari, you agree and consent to Apple’s and its subsidiaries’ and agents’ transmission, collection, maintenance, processing, and use of this information to make Spotlight Suggestions more relevant and to test and improve other Apple products and services.
(Emphasis in original)
You can turn off data sharing and location by unchecking the Spotlight suggestions and Bing boxes in Spotlight privacy settings. (Apple will still use reverse IP targeting to localize results.) The catch is that if you uncheck those boxes you won’t get any web search in your Spotlight results:
If you do not want your Spotlight search queries and Spotlight Suggestions usage data sent to Apple, you can turn off Spotlight Suggestions. Simply deselect the checkboxes for both Spotlight Suggestions and Bing Web Searches in the Search Results tab in the Spotlight preference pane found within System Preferences on your Mac. If you turn off Spotlight Suggestions and Bing Web Searches, Spotlight will search the contents of only your Mac.
There’s going to be a tendency in articles to position Spotlight as a web search alternative to Google and talk about how Spotlight threatens Google. It doesn’t.
Right now Spotlight is a more useful tool vs. its pre-Yosemite version. However if Apple is really serious about bringing web search utility to Spotlight it needs to go much much further than this.
Postscript: Apple released a statement in response to stories about Spotlight Search keeping query data and location information. Here’s what the company said according to iMore:
We are absolutely committed to protecting our users’ privacy and have built privacy right into our products. For Spotlight Suggestions we minimize the amount of information sent to Apple. Apple doesn’t retain IP addresses from users’ devices. Spotlight blurs the location on the device so it never sends an exact location to Apple. Spotlight doesn’t use a persistent identifier, so a user’s search history can’t be created by Apple or anyone else. Apple devices only use a temporary anonymous session ID for a 15-minute period before the ID is discarded.
We also worked closely with Microsoft to protect our users’ privacy. Apple forwards only commonly searched terms and only city-level location information to Bing. Microsoft does not store search queries or receive users’ IP addresses.