Safety Check is Apple’s new iOS feature for people dealing with abusive relationships

This story is part WWDC 2022CNET’s full coverage from and about Apple’s annual developer conference.

Apple on Monday announced a new Safety Checks feature for iOS 16 aimed at people in abusive relationships. The feature allows users to check and reset who has access to location information as well as passwords, messages and other apps on an iPhone.

Apple launched the feature during its WWDC annual event. Phones can become stalking devices in abusive relationships, with features that can come in handy in some relationships and give abusers dangerous information. This is especially true when people are trying to leave their abusers, a time that domestic violence experts say is the most dangerous point for survivors.

“Many people share passwords and access to their devices with a partner,” Katie Skinner, Apple’s privacy engineering manager, said Monday at the event. “However, in abusive relationships, it can threaten personal safety and make it harder for victims to get help.”

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In addition to disabling location sharing, the Safety Check feature resets your privacy permissions on apps and protects access to your messages, limiting iMessage and FaceTime sessions to your device only. It also prompts you to reset your Apple ID password, which would revoke anyone’s access to your iCloud account and all sensitive data stored there. It also allows you to review your emergency contacts.

Domestic violence experts say survivors must juggle many technical problems as they search for a way out and ultimately leave an abusive relationship. Simply viewing a domestic violence resource website can put someone at risk if an abusive partner has access to the web browsing history. On the other hand, cutting off access to personal data shared with an abuser may prompt that person to escalate intimidation or violence, so survivors need a safety plan in place when deciding to revoke access or not. Finally, location data can help abusers find victims after they are gone.

Security screening can remove access that you have intentionally granted to a partner or family member. Resetting the Apple ID password would also likely disable any tracking software that an abusive partner has added without your knowledge. Known as stalkerwaretracking software is designed to intercept location informationmessages and web searches, but this usually only works on iPhones if the attacker has the target’s iCloud password.

Read more: Stalkerware: what to do if you are the target?

Apple has worked with domestic violence prevention agencies to develop the feature, including the National Network to End Domestic Violence, the Women’s Services Network, and the National Center for Victims of Crime.

“In times of crisis, for many survivors, knowing who has their location and information is important,” the National Center for Victims of Crime said in a statement shared by Apple. “Safety Check helps put survivors back in control.”

Apple has come under criticism for the impact its technology can have on victims of domestic violence. The company’s AirTag product, for example, is a small, easy-to-hide location-tracking device that proponents say could be used to stalk someone. Apple responded to these complaints by creating an app that allows Android users to detect Nearby AirTags (previously only iPhone users could do this) and also warn AirTag users that it is illegal to track people down and that Apple will give their personal information linking them to a specific AirTag to law enforcement if asked.

The company has also made changes to the warning sounds that devices play to alert people that there’s an AirTag nearby, with the aim of making them more useful to people who might be targeted by an unwanted device.

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