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Why iPhone and iPad Apps Are Asking to Use Bluetooth

If you’ve installed iOS 13 on your iPhone, you’ve probably noticed that many apps are suddenly asking for permission to use your Bluetooth hardware. The same change will arrive on iPads with the iPadOS update. Here’s what’s going on.

Apps Could Previously Use Bluetooth Without Asking

These messages are new in iOS 13. Before this update, apps on your iPhone or iPad could use Bluetooth all they liked. As long as you had Bluetooth enabled, apps could use it without asking.

Now, Bluetooth is more like other sensitive data on your phone. There’s a permission that controls whether apps can access it. Just as an app has to ask before getting your location via GPS or accessing your contacts, it has to ask before tapping the Bluetooth radio.

In other words, these apps were all accessing your iPhone or iPad’s Bluetooth before. Now, they have to ask first—and you’re suddenly seeing them ask for the first time.

Why Did Apple Make the Change?

Apple made this change for privacy reasons. Bluetooth isn’t just for connecting to external devices like wireless headphones, keyboards, and mice. It’s become increasingly common for stores, shopping malls, and other public locations to set up Bluetooth “tracking beacons.” An app could communicate with these to determine your physical location—for example, identifying if you’re in a retail store and where you are in that store.

At WWDC 2019, Apple’s Craig Federighi said Apple would be “shutting the door on that abuse” of Bluetooth to prevent apps from tracking you without your permission. That’s what iOS 13 is doing.

Before iOS 13, there was no way to tell if an app was using Bluetooth or stop it beyond disabling Bluetooth on your device. Now, an app has to ask if it wants to use Bluetooth, and you can make a decision.

Why Do Apps Need or Want Bluetooth?

Fitbit's Bluetooth request message on an iPhone.

Apps don’t just use Bluetooth for tracking your location. And, even if an app is tracking your location, it may be doing that for a useful reason. For example, Target’s app uses Bluetooth beacons to determine your location inside its stores. The app can give you directions in the store and guide you to products on the shelves.

Other apps will request Bluetooth access to pair with accessories. For example, the Fitbit app needs Bluetooth to communicate with Fitbit exercise trackers.

Developers can provide a message explaining why their app requests Bluetooth access. For example, the Fitbit app says, “Fitbit needs to connect to your tracker to track your exercise.”

If an app’s developer doesn’t provide a custom message, you’ll just see a message saying, “This will allow [This App] to find and connect to Bluetooth accessories. This app may also use Bluetooth to know when you’re nearby.”

Should You Allow or Deny Bluetooth for an App?

The Anova app's generic Bluetooth permission request message on iOS 13.

Whether you should allow or deny Bluetooth for an app is really up to you, what you’re using the app for, and how much you trust that app. It’s just like giving location or other permissions to an app.

If an app needs Bluetooth to work with a wireless accessory, that feature won’t work if you don’t enable Bluetooth. If an app like Target’s uses Bluetooth to provide indoor directions, those won’t work if Bluetooth is disabled. But, if an app appears to have no valid reason for requesting Bluetooth, you can just say no.

As with other types of privacy permissions on Apple’s iOS, you can change your mind later by visiting the Settings app.

How to Enable or Disable Bluetooth for an App

Head to Settings > Privacy > Bluetooth to change whether or not an app can use Bluetooth. You’ll see a list of apps that have requested access to your iPhone or iPad’s Bluetooth. Flip an app’s toggle to enable or disable Bluetooth for it.

Seeing and controlling which apps can use Bluetooth on an iPhone or iPad.

You can also open the Settings app and scroll down until you see an alphabetical list of all your installed apps. Tap an app in the list to view its permissions. Toggle the “Bluetooth Sharing” permission on or off to allow or deny access to Bluetooth for that app.

Controlling an individual app's Bluetooth settings on an iPhone.

Annoying Prompts Now For More Privacy Later

Bluetooth becomes yet another permission on Apple’s iOS operating system. Sure, that means more dialog boxes to tap through. But it also means more control over your privacy and more power over what apps can do.

As of iOS 13’s release, a lot of apps are asking for Bluetooth without actually explaining what it’s for. App developers will have to think about ways to better explain these Bluetooth requests to their users. And, if an app is using Bluetooth just to track its users with no benefit to them, that app’s developer will have to think about whether the negative PR is really worth asking for Bluetooth permissions.

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