What’s the Deal with All the Privacy Requests in macOS Catalina?

What’s the Deal with All the Privacy Requests in macOS Catalina?

You most likely have noticed that Apple has been beefing up the Mac’s privacy controls over the last few macOS releases. They more closely resemble what they have done in iOS. You’ve undoubtedly noticed that when you first launch a new app on your iPhone or iPad, it often prompts access to your contacts or your photos, the camera or microphone, and so on. The idea behind those prompts is they, Apple, are protecting your privacy. You should always be aware of how a particular app can access your device’s personal data or features. You might not want to let some new game thumb through your photos or record your voice.

macOS has been heading in this direction too. Apple started down this path with macOS Mojave. They then upped the stakes with macOS Catalina forcing apps to play this “Mother, May I?” game in even more ways. As a result, particularly after you first upgrade and whenever you install a new app, you may be bombarded with dialogs asking for various permissions. For instance, the Loom app that helps you make quick video recordings of your screen requires lots of permissions. The good news is once you grant them, Loom won’t have to ask again for permission.

What’s the Deal with All the Privacy Requests in macOS Catalina?

Loom’s requests are entirely reasonable—it wouldn’t be able to do its job without such access. That applies more generally, too. In most cases, apps will ask for access for a good reason, and if you want the app to function properly, you should give it access. I also find it comforting knowing what an app has access too.

However, you should be wary if a permission dialog appears, and you don’t recognize the name of the app making the request or if you aren’t doing anything related to the request. Apple’s hope is that you’ll deny access to requests from malicious apps.

macOS Catalina’s problem is that apps have to ask for permission for so many basic capabilities that users become overwhelmed by all the dialogs. Apple is doing the right thing, but apps need to learn how to walk you through the process a bit better. A good app, like Loom, will walk the user through accepting them on its first launch, but even still, answering four or more requests can be confusing.

You might be tempted to deny access categorically. That’s fine from a privacy standpoint, but not when it comes to functionality—when you deny a permission request, you prevent that app from working as you anticipate or it was designed to do. Fortunately, you can always grant (or revoke) permission later. And remember, once you’ve granted permission, you won’t have to do it again for that app—it’s a per-app request, not a per-session request.

To see which permissions you’ve granted or denied, open System Preferences > Security & Privacy > Privacy. A list of categories appears on the left; click one to see which apps have requested access. If you’ve granted access, the checkbox next to the app will be selected; otherwise, it will be empty.

What’s the Deal with All the Privacy Requests in macOS Catalina?

By default, these preferences will be locked. You’ll notice that the lock in the lower-left corner of the System Preferences window is closed. To make changes, click it and sign in as an administrator when prompted.

Most of these categories are self-explanatory, but it might not always be obvious why an app wants permission. In the screenshot above, for instance, Slack has been granted access to the Mac’s camera. Why? So its video call feature can work.

Annoyingly, giving access often requires that you quit the app in question before the permission takes effect. That’s awkward on the first launch of a new app since you launch it, respond to a bunch of dialogs, and then have to quit and relaunch before you can use it.

There are some categories (including some not showing above) that could use additional explanation:

Accessibility: Apps that request accessibility access want to control your Mac. In essence, they want to be able to pretend to click the mouse, type on the keyboard, and generally act like a user. Utility and automation software often needs such access.

What’s the Deal with All the Privacy Requests in macOS Catalina?

Full Disk Access: This category is a catch-all for access to areas on your drive that aren’t normally available to apps, such as data in Mail, Messages, Safari, Home, and more, including Time Machine backups and some admin settings. Backup and synchronization utilities need full disk access, in particular. An app can’t request full disk access in the normal way; you must add it manually by dragging its icon into the list or clicking the + button under the list and selecting the app in the Applications folder.

What’s the Deal with All the Privacy Requests in macOS Catalina?

Automation: The Mac has long had a way for apps to communicate with and control one another. This is done through Apple events. In most cases this is helpful, but is also means an app could theoretically steal information from another via Apple events, so the Automation category lets you specify which apps can control which other apps. You’ll see normal permission requests, but they’ll explain both sides of the communication. (System Events is a behind-the-scenes macOS utility that helps with scripting and automation.)

What’s the Deal with All the Privacy Requests in macOS Catalina?

So if you’ve been seeing repeated requests for permission in Mojave and especially in Catalina, now you know why these dialogs keep popping up. They’re a bit irritating at first, but the added privacy is worthwhile, and once you’ve granted permission to an app, you shouldn’t hear from it again.

(Featured image by Jason Dent on Unsplash)

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