What the Hack? Podcast
What the Hack? Podcast
What the Hack? Podcast
What the Hack? Podcast

Is Apple a Privacy Champion or a Privacy Entrepreneur?

Apple is heavily invested in portraying itself as a privacy-centric company, but will it work?

Apple privacy

Facebook is now in the business of guessing when you will dieGoogle is doing the same thing, and of course they’re still tracking everywhere you go in order to hit sundry fiscal targets. And then of course there is Amazonlistening to everything that happens in your living room, always with the potential that the retail giant might use that “access” to serve ads to fuel future purchases large or small.

In keeping with its storied marketing past, Apple is claiming to “think different.”

The company has long been something of an outlier in the tech industry: As others embraced open technology standards and platforms, Apple has consistently maintained a walled-garden strategy of proprietary software and hardware, and with that a zealously guarded (and cultivated) mystique.

This served Apple well for a while in the 80s, before Microsoft’s platform-agnostic approach with Windows nearly annihilated their market share (it sank below 5%), and then it helped revive their fortunes in the techno-optimistic late 90s when their colorful iMacs served as a skin-deep rebellion against PC culture with its ubiquitous beige computers.

As Facebook announces one privacy facepalm after another, it is interesting to see that privacy has meanwhile become one of Apple’s biggest selling points–specifically user privacy.

The move couldn’t come soon enough. Competition has never been stronger. Sales of iPhones continue apace, but without the exponential growth that once came standard with a new iPhone launch. And while sales continue to grow overall, they aren’t what they used to be.

Enter the privacy play.

With the Steve Jobs effect fading, Apple seems to be betting on privacy as the next whizbang. And with data breaches and compromises now firmly established as the third certainty in life, the odds are in Apple’s favor. Privacy is increasingly becoming a commodity, and Apple has successfully captured a portion of the resulting market.

The Two Questions

Can Apple turn a meaningful profit simply by pitching consumer-friendly privacy? And more importantly, is the pitch sincere?

Apple has been notoriously secretive about its own technology, so it makes a certain amount of sense that the company’s offerings would have privacy sewn into their development and the way they work. With the market for consumer privacy never more robust, there is every indication that Apple can turn this demand into profits.

There are some earnest privacy propositions as well. End-to-end encryption comes standard on Apple’s payment, video conference, and text systems (ApplePay, FaceTime, and iMessage, respectively). The latest iteration of their web browser Safari intentionally obfuscates Facebook’s infamous web tracking functionality. And of course Apple went head-to-head with the FBI over the alleged (and ultimately useless) information on the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone. In the same vein, they are in the process of closing a long-standing security hole that had become a favorite for law enforcement.

With these displays of commitment to privacy, it’s important to remember the propensity of the tech industry in general, and Apple in particular, to provide a sort of bread and circuses in this area. Spectacles of privacy and security cannot in themselves engender great end results: secure consumer information. Privacy is a binary proposition: you either have it, or you don’t.

One well known reality check comes by way of Apple’s iCloud data service, which complies with China’s none-too-transparency-friendly standards, (just ask John Oliver). Regardless, privacy policy (and practice) is a game of inches, and each step, no matter how tiny, matters. Apple practices a policy called Differential Privacy, wherein the data they collect is anonymized, which in theory at least means that any data collected is rendered vague enough to not count–or be useable–as personally identifiable information.

Compared to the vertically integrated approach favored by Google, which has a near monopoly on web search, web browsers, web analytics, mobile operating systems, or Facebook’s data mine of 2 billion people, Apple seems like the protagonist to root for, at least from the point of view of privacy.

And yet it would not be entirely accurate to frame Apple as a privacy hero. As it stands, Apple’s version of privacy requires users to share with the company all his or her contacts, photos, and location history. So, while it’s great that data is moved around with security topmost in the process, it’s hardly a true privacy practice.

As we’ve found with other businesses, the data you offer to a company (willingly or otherwise) can be passed on to others. The fact that Apple is currently more circumspect with their user data is no guarantee that they’ll continue to work that way, especially since there isn’t any law requiring them to be consistent.