Big Tech Privacy

If you look at recent headlines, it seems like the biggest players in the technology industry are finally embracing a more privacy-centric way of doing business. 

The pronouncements are coming fast and furious. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • Apple is adding privacy labels to apps sold on its store as part of a broader move toward giving consumers more control over their data. 
  • Google announced that it will block third-party cookies in future versions of its Chrome web browser.
  • Twitter is exploring non-advertisement routes to monetization. 

Maintaining its ever-present level of user surveillance, Facebook just got a $650 million bill to settle a privacy suit. Facebook has been dinged enough times with enough fines, lawsuits, bad press and investigations that a tipping point may be in the offing. 

But does any of this represent a win for the end user?

Privacy Matters

Remember that news blip about personal voice assistants eavesdropping on users? Amazon, Apple and Google–they’ve all been nailed in one way or another. It doesn’t matter if the privacy issue was intentional or the product of negligence, a lack of foresight, etc. It’s all bad, except for one thing:

Whenever the curtain is pulled back on data collection, it’s a teachable moment and an opportunity to improve consumer privacy. 

Most of us care about our privacy. We don’t like people in our stuff, and generally don’t want our information shared with third parties without our consent. 

A recent survey conducted by Pew Research found that nearly 80 percent of adults polled were concerned about their data being collected, but only six percent felt that they understood what data was being collected and/or how it was being used. Most businesses that traffic in user data are opaque about what they’re doing with our information–location, age, gender, language, educational level, buying habits, ethnic background, household income, physical activity and other deeply intimate details–because if they were to ask for it in explicit terms we’d say, “Are you out of your mind?” 

Telling a user you “collect data to make ads more relevant” or getting them to sign off on a 2500 word privacy policy raises fewer alarms. 

Recent initiatives from Google and Apple represent something of a win for consumers, but to what extent and why?

Et Tu, Apple?

Since Tim Cook took the top spot at Apple, the company has positioned itself as a champion of consumer privacy.

“Privacy to us is a human right. It’s a civil liberty,” Cook said in a 2018 interview. “[T]his is like freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and privacy is right up there for us.”

When it comes to privacy, pay attention to what they do not what they say. Apple’s recent and upcoming updates to data tracking within apps sold on its App Store includes “privacy labels.” The company will also allow users to opt out of any ad tracking by default via dialogue box. Each time you use an app for the first time it will prompt you: “Allow Tracking” or “Ask Apps Not to Track.” 

From a privacy point of view, this is great. Popular apps such as Instagram and Facebook gather enormous amounts of user data to track users, and many other apps including Spotify, Duolingo, and TripAdvisor transmit personal data to Facebook the moment you open them without notification or your consent. 

What gets less coverage is that Apple doesn’t make money from apps that traffic in personal information by way of targeted ad delivery. On the other hand, Apple scrapes thirty percent of revenue from paid apps and in-app purchases. It feels a little like an episode of the Sopranos.

Apple’s “walled garden” approach is as legendary as “the Apple Tax.” The company even parted ways with Intel, manufacturing its own proprietary line of processor chips instead. Additionally, Apple corrals users into its proprietary web browser, navigation app, music service, podcasting service, TV streaming service, email service, cloud-based backup service, home automation system, and you can pay for it all with its payment service. You think that’s seamless? All the while this online eco-system is gobbling up your data, and, yes, using it for targeted advertising

It’s not that Apple doesn’t collect data, it’s just that it doesn’t share it. 

And then there’s Google…

Many of the same considerations with Apple figure when it comes to Google. Google is an even more highly integrated company with a broad array of products and services all capable of tracking your data, habits, and behavior. 

The company controls 90 percent of the search engine market, a shade under 70 percent of the web browser market, 67 percent of the online map and navigation market, over 70 percent of the mobile operating system market and its Youtube video platform has over 2.3 billion users worldwide, making it the world’s second largest social network after Facebook.

Any move Google makes to protect consumer privacy is a good thing. When Mozilla Firefox and Safari block third-party cookies, it’s window-dressing. When Google’s Chrome browser does the same thing, entire industries that rely on invasive tracking could go belly up. (And good riddance.)

Google’s situation with third-party cookies is similar to Apple’s latest privacy moves only it owns everything but Apple’s walled garden. 

Last year a reporter chronicled her attempt to excise Google services from her internet usage. Nearly every website she visited used the company to provide fonts, run advertising banners, and used its analytics to track traffic. Even competing or unaffiliated services and apps such as Dropbox, Uber, Lyft, and Yelp depended one way or another on Google services. 

Google’s ubiquity extends into the offline world as well. The company inked a deal with MasterCard in 2018 to track and combine offline purchases with data on online ad clicks. It regularly receives data from advertisers with loyalty programs to further track offline shopping behavior with online browsing habits. The sophistication of Google’s ability to track and gather data makes third-party cookies seem quaint, and it takes the luster out of any privacy-centric decisions on their part.

They are what Mark Zuckerberg was talking about when he said we live in a post-privacy world. 

The takeaway

More privacy is good. Talking about privacy in a world where it doesn’t exist is bad. While Apple and Google deserve credit for talking a better game when it comes to data privacy, we need to understand such moves in their full context. 

Should companies like Amazon and Facebook take note? To be continued…