Some End of Year Panic About Mobile Keyboard Privacy

I’ve recently upgraded iPhones, which means finally upgrading my phone to iOS 13, which means trying out some of the new features that are available there. Since I do not have the most dextrous of features, one of the things that I’ve been experimenting with is the native “swiping” keyboard, which allows one to drag one’s finger across the screen to the general area of each letter in a word, upon which the keyboard software will predict the word one intended. I’ve been impressed with how well the software works—especially for a touch-typist like me who doesn’t even need to pay close attention to the keyboard to get my finger in the general area of the letter I’m looking for.

Last night, though, I had a wake-up call when writing myself a note and noticing something peculiar. The note involved my toddler, who—by virtue of having unbearably and annoyingly Francophile parents—has a unique nickname based on a French-language-inspired full name, which my wife and I prefer to spell with the appropriate diacritics (even though they don’t appear on the birth certificate for complicated reasons involving technology and cultural biases—that’s a story for another time, though). Anyway, there’s no good reason to assume that a swipe-style keyboard would be able to correctly predict my kid’s name, but I was briefly impressed when a quick swipe of my fat fingers got the nickname down perfectly, diacritic and all.

I say briefly, of course, because there is no personalization of a technology like this without close monitoring of my existing behavior. To test this out, I did some digging around in my phone settings, cleared the personalized keyboard dictionary, and tried swiping again. Sure enough, the resulting word was entirely different (and one that I never type). Now, there’s no denying that being able to swipe my kid’s name is of tremendous benefit to me—but is that worth the cost of having Apple pay close attention to everything that I type?

After all, I’m the kind of person that has his iPhone set up with Windscribe VPN and the DuckDuckGo mobile browser. For even the most innocuous Web searches, I’ll use DDG so that my search won’t get tracked and so that I can immediately nuke the history right afterwards. Since that doesn’t prevent my Internet Service Provider from taking an interest in what I’m doing online, I’ll frequently also flip on Windscribe to shield my browsing activity from good ol’ Spectrum (though, yes, this does require a certain amount of faith that Windscribe is living up to its word and not peeking themselves). To subvert one common response to these privacy concerns, I don’t have anything to hide, either—it’s just that I don’t think Google or Spectrum has any business taking note of what I’m doing, and that goes even if there is some benefit to me at the end of the day.

My keyboard, though? Is it keeping track of everything that I type into a search bar? It certainly seems to, and I don’t know if I like that. A little bit of poking around the Internet has unearthed some of the privacy concerns related to smartphone keyboards (see, for example, this article or this one), but I don’t know how to deal with this when all I’m using is the default Apple keyboard setup. Does anyone know where I would look to figure out what Apple’s policy is for personalized keyboard data? Is it local/iCloud specific and truly personal? Or is it all going to servers in Cupertino Siri-style so that other Apple users can benefit from my typing?