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Apple warns of “privacy and security threats” after EU requires it to allow sideloading

Despite several warnings about the risks, Apple will allow European iPhone owners to install apps obtained from outside the official App store (sideloading).

These drastic changes are brought about to comply with the European Union’s (EU) Digital Markets Act (DMA). The Digital Markets Act (DMA) establishes a set of clearly defined objective criteria to identify “gatekeepers”. Gatekeepers are large digital platforms providing so called core platform services, such as for example online search engines, app stores, and messenger services.

The Digital Markets Act aims to regulate the gatekeeper power of the largest digital companies. The EU designated iOS, Safari, and the App Store as “core platform services” under the Digital Markets Act. According to the DMA, Apple as it is now has a monopoly in the App Store, and will no longer be allowed to use that to enforce a monopoly in payments in apps.

For reference, something similar happened when the US accused Microsoft of illegally monopolizing the web browser market for Windows. A few law cases later they reached a settlement in which Microsoft agreed to modify some of its business practices, opening up the opportunity for Windows users to switch to other browsers.

The Apple Newsroom says:

“The changes include more than 600 new APIs, expanded app analytics, functionality for alternative browser engines, and options for processing app payments and distributing iOS apps.”

But Apple also warns very firmly about the consequences.

“The new options for processing payments and downloading apps on iOS open new avenues for malware, fraud and scams, illicit and harmful content, and other privacy and security threats.”

Another big change is that web browsers won’t be forced to use Safari’s WebKit engine, opening the space for Chromium based browsers and a more desktop-alike feel for Firefox.

The fact that Apple only allows other browsers to drop WebKit in Europe means that browser developers are forced to make hard choices. Mozilla spokesperson Damiano DeMonte tells The Verge it’s extremely disappointed with the way things turned out.

“We are still reviewing the technical details but are extremely disappointed with Apple’s proposed plan to restrict the newly-announced BrowserEngineKit to EU-specific apps. The effect of this would be to force an independent browser like Firefox to build and maintain two separate browser implementations — a burden Apple themselves will not have to bear.”

We asked Malwarebytes Director of Core Technology and resident Apple expert Thomas Reed how he felt about the announced changes and the associated risks.

Thomas is waiting for more details as well, but he expects that Apple will use the experience it gathered with macOS by nature of its openness and only open it up only as much as it is forced to, and no more. Thomas expects Apple to impose notarization on iOS apps from outside the App Store, just as they did for macOS.

“If they completely open up iOS to the same degree as macOS, I think there will be some inevitable malware, adware, and PUP issues. The biggest problem with iOS currently is PUPs and scam apps that manage to get past the review process. I think those will also be a problem with apps from outside the App Store, and I think Apple will combat those similarly. Which is to say, far from perfectly.”

Developers can get acquainted with these changes on the Apple Developer Support page and start testing new capabilities in the iOS 17.4 beta. The new capabilities will become available to users in the 27 EU countries around the beginning of March 2024.

Don’t rely on the fact that this will be limited to the EU. Although the most significant app policy changes apply only to EU countries, other shifts concerning cloud gaming and in-app purchases will take effect worldwide.

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Pieter Arntz

Malware Intelligence Researcher

Was a Microsoft MVP in consumer security for 12 years running. Can speak four languages. Smells of rich mahogany and leather-bound books.