Apple Releases First Betas for iOS 16.6, watchOS 9.6, tvOS 16.6, and macOS 13.5

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Less than 24 hours after Apple officially released iOS 16.5 and its companions, the company has already seeded the first developer betas for the next set of point releases.

While it’s unlikely that iOS 16.6 et al will be released to the public before Apple takes the wraps off iOS 17, macOS 14, and the rest at next month’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), the company clearly wants to get the beta cycle going as soon as possible.

With most of the promised features for iOS 16 now available, we’re not expecting any major enhancements in iOS 16.6, and developers haven’t yet dug out everything that’s new in the first iOS 16.6 beta. However, a full point release usually includes at least a few new APIs for developers to take advantage of, even if there aren’t any new user-facing features.

What’s New in iOS 16.6

According to MacRumors, Apple could be preparing to introduce iMessage Contact Key Verification in iOS 16.6, which is one of the few previously announced features that we’ve still been waiting for.

This wasn’t initially laid as an iOS 16 feature at least year’s WWDC, but rather in Apple’s December announcement about Advanced Data Protection. Apple laid the groundwork for most of those features in iOS 16.2 and the accompanying OS updates for its other devices in December, although it wasn’t fully ready on the back end until early 2023.

The marquee features on that list were Advanced Data Protection and support for hardware security keys, which delivered full end-to-end encryption for nearly all data stored in iCloud, and the ability to add extra security to your Apple ID by requiring a physical security key to log in to your account.

The third security feature in that announcement, iMessage Contact Key Verification, flew somewhat under the radar, partly because it wasn’t nearly as necessary for typical iPhone users. Even at the time, Apple said this was for “users who face extraordinary digital threats” to be able to verify that their iMessage conversations are going to the right person and not being intercepted by an eavesdropper or imposter.

Examples of these types of users are “journalists, human rights activists, and members of government” — the kind of folks that would fall victim to Pegasus spyware, and the same target audience for which Apple designed its new high-security Lockdown Mode.

“Conversations between users who have enabled iMessage Contact Key Verification receive automatic alerts if an exceptionally advanced adversary, such as a state-sponsored attacker, were ever to succeed breaching cloud servers and inserting their own device to eavesdrop on these encrypted communications. And for even higher security, iMessage Contact Key Verification users can compare a Contact Verification Code in person, on FaceTime, or through another secure call.”

According to MacRumors contributor Steve Moser, the iOS 16.6 developer beta includes a setting to enable iMessage Contact Key Verification, but so far, it doesn’t appear to do anything. It’s unclear whether it requires additional settings to be enabled or it simply hasn’t been fully implemented yet. It is only the first beta, after all.

Since iMessage works on most other Apple devices, presumably iPadOS 16.6, macOS 13.5, and watchOS 9.6 will have similar features. It’s less clear whether tvOS 16.6 adds anything noteworthy.

Beyond the new security setting, it’s not yet known what else the new point releases have in store. However, if Apple remains true to form, we should see a public beta release in the next few days, opening up the new software to a broader audience that will undoubtedly uncover more goodies.

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