Don’t Worry, Apple’s Journal App Probably Isn’t a Privacy Nightmare

Don’t Worry, Apple’s Journal App Probably Isn’t a Privacy Nightmare

When Apple launched its Journal app in December, Lifehacker writer Khamosh Pathak called it a good gateway for anyone interested in digital journaling. Part of that easy barrier to entry comes in the form of Journal’s suggestions feature: Every now and then, the app sends you a notification recommending a journal entry based on something you did recently, whether a trip you went on, or an activity you took part in.

In theory, it’s a great way to be prodded into journaling on a daily basis. You might not think to record your thoughts about a dinner out with friends or a weekend getaway, but a gentle push from Journal could inspire you to write about it. These suggestions, however, are made possible by specific permissions you grant the app. In order for it to know that you were out to dinner at a specific restaurant, or camping in a particular park, it needs to know where you’re going at all times. And because the app suggests writing about other things in your daily life, it wants access to additional data points beyond your location, like your fitness activity, media use (the music and podcasts you listen to), your contacts, and your photos.

Apple makes it a point to say that any Journal entries are encrypted when your iPhone is locked, as well as when stored on iCloud, and that you can turn off access to any of these data points as you please. However, they stop short of saying that they don’t collect any of your data through this feature. That said, all of this data is already created on your iPhone: Journal is just accessing it.

Nevertheless, one feature of Journal recently triggered concern on social media: the Discoverable by Others setting.

Is Journal’s Discoverable by Others a privacy risk?

The Discoverable by Others option, quietly enabled, allows other iPhone users with the Journal app to detect your iPhone via Bluetooth. Their Journal app uses that data to improve their Journal suggestions, as your Journal app will do for you when you get close to other iPhones in the wild.

I first learned about this setting from this viral TikTok, and on the surface, it sounds terrible from a privacy perspective. Nobody wants their iPhones constantly telling other iPhones, “Hey! Jake Peterson here. I’m also in this Starbucks!” The good news is it isn’t as bad as it sounds. When enabled, Discoverable by Others will detect both the number of devices you’re near, as well as any contacts you come within Bluetooth range of, without saving the details of those contacts on your phone. Journal’s goal isn’t to suggest contacts to write about; rather, it’s to inform Journal itself of events to prioritize suggestions for. If Journal knows you hung out with a bunch of your contacts that day, or were surrounded by a huge number of iPhones, it will assume whatever you were doing was worth writing about.

For strangers, those Journal app encounters will mark you as just another stranger that iPhone owner was in the vicinity of that day—nothing specific about your identity is shared with them. That said, if you have contacts who enable the feature too, their Journal apps will also know when you’re nearby, but only in the moment. Journal won’t save a record noting that Jake Peterson was with you today, just that one of your contacts was. Personally, I don’t see this as a privacy or security vulnerability. Still, I can understand it being an unwanted feature, especially when the vast majority of users didn’t know it was a thing to begin with.

How to disable Discoverable by Others in the Journal app

Luckily, the feature is easy to disable. Head to Settings > Privacy & Security > Journaling Suggestions, then make sure the slider for Discoverable by Others is gray. While you’re here, take a look at the other suggestions data points to see if you’re comfortable with the app having access to those as well. If not, disable the ones you want to revoke, or tap Turn Off All to block Journal from all those data points.

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