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A lot of apps seem to request access to the Documents folder. Does giving them access mean they can both read/write anything in this folder?

Isn't this very dangerous and doesn't that mean we really shouldn't be using the Document folder to store private/personal information?

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  • You don't have to give them access - although some might require it or not work. – Mr R Mar 18 at 7:56
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The normal Unix permissions system gives the user an area of the disk for their files (the user domain). Apps and other processes launched by the user run 'as the user' and can read and write anywhere in the user domain, (but not in another user's domain, or in system areas.)

Similarly, processes run by other users can't read or write in your user account. (Note that System processes are often 'other users'.)

Catalina and Big Sur are even stricter, requiring the user's express permission for an app to read and write to the Documents folder. This essentially creates a white-list of apps that are allowed in the Documents folder. There are similar white-lists for your Desktop folder, Downloads, and network volumes and external drives.

This added security means that a malicious app, unwittingly launched by the user, can't access your files in the Documents folder, without your express permission. Thus, the Documents folder is safer than other folders on the disk.

Other folders in your user domain are not protected in this way, and can be read or written by any process that you launch.

It comes at the cost of a significant annoyance factor and user tendency to click "Yeah, yeah, yeah" whenever they see it, which somewhat reduces its efficacy.

Normally, we expect apps to be able to read and write our files. If MS Word couldn't read .docx files, and couldn't save them either, then the app would be useless.

You can reasonably expect commercial applications not to rifle through your correspondence in the hope of finding and transmitting something of use or value. The discovery of such a practice would lead to customers abandoning the app, and likely legal proceedings. (Unless you've agreed that the company can scan your data, as with Gmail and Google docs.)

The best way to secure your data is by encrypting your disk with FileVault, using strong passwords on the user account at login and wake from sleep, and by following good practice for safe computing, e.g. not downloading anything from dodgy sites, or when told 'you need to install Flash' etc.

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  • So the apps that asks me for permission to Documents, they can access other files else without my permission? So I should place all my important info in the document folder? – JobHunter69 Mar 18 at 19:57
  • No app is going to access files without your permission: it just means that if you want to open a document with a different app, you can. – benwiggy Mar 18 at 20:55
  • Sorry I'm not quite understanding. I mean, if I grant an app permission to my Documents folder, will it be able to access other folders? – JobHunter69 Mar 28 at 5:20
  • So is the Documents folder the safest place to store my personal info? – JobHunter69 Mar 28 at 5:20
  • @JobHunter69 User-launched applications can by default access any folder in your user domain except the ones that require specific permission: Documents, Desktop, Downloads, etc. – benwiggy Mar 28 at 10:08
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Yes, this is a potential problem. If both a tax program and a word processor use your Documents folder, the word processor could theoretically send your tax returns back to its vendor.

This is a price we pay for keeping things simple. Ideally you could have separate folders for each application, and they couldn't access each others' documents.

But what Apple has done is still better than earlier versions. Previously, there was no application-level protection at all for the Documents folder. Any application you ran could access it, even if it didn't need to read or write documents. Now you're at least required to approve whether an app can do this.

If you only install applications from the App Store, you should be able to trust them not to access documents inappropriately. Apple reviews all applications before making them available on the App Store, and this is the kind of thing they will check for. Of course, the world isn't perfect and they could miss something, but you can only be so paranoid. And of course, you have to trust Apple in general -- if you worry about them being malicious, you shouldn't use their operating systems, since it could steal any of your data.

I wouldn't be surprised if Apple is planning on more fine-grained permissions in the future, and this is just the first step in that path.

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  • Separate folders for each app (so that you can't have a project folder with different file types) would not be 'ideal', but AWFUL, and the useful security aspect massively overstated. What's to stop your tax program sending back your returns? Or your word processor to send back letters you've written? – benwiggy Mar 18 at 18:54
  • @benwiggy The tax program obviously needs access to your tax return, so that's a risk you're forced to take -- it wouldn't be a tax program otherwise. Security is always a matter of degree, not black and white. – Barmar Mar 18 at 18:58
  • And many people already organize their Documents like this. It comes pre-loaded with things like My Pictures. I have a folder for all my tax information. – Barmar Mar 18 at 18:59
  • So the problem is allowing the app to send home, not to read. This is the wrong solution for the wrong problem. – benwiggy Mar 18 at 18:59
  • True, that's another aspect of it. But so many applications use online resources that it's impractical to block network access. – Barmar Mar 18 at 19:00

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