Caring about privacy is finally cool. You know how I can tell? Because Apple is making a bet that foregrounding privacy is how they can best differentiate themselves from the rest of their Silicon Valley brethren.
With the release of iOS 14, for example, Apple has released a number of consumer-visible privacy updates — the camera and microphone-use indicators, the privacy nutrition label, the shift to an opt-in model to allow apps to track you across other apps and services.
These features have, in turn, surfaced a number of questionable privacy-intrusive development practices in a range of popular iOS apps — e.g., the LinkedIn app processing users’ clipboard contents every time it is opened and the Instagram app accessing a user’s camera even they are not taking pictures1. The big news now, of course, is how Apple is ruffling Facebook’s feathers with their new app tracking transparency update that would require users to opt-in to allow apps like Facebook to track them across multiple apps. This policy would undermine Facebook’s ability to collect data about what iOS users do on their iOS devices — after all, who is going to opt-in to explicitly allow Facebook to track their activities?
But, as smart people have argued in the past — perhaps Apple’s privacy bet is just grandstanding. Indeed, while the privacy features introduced in iOS 14 are welcome, Apple has facilitated many of the same privacy-intrusive practices for which it is now positioning itself as a champion of the people. Yes, the LinkedIn app was processing a user’s clipboard every time it was opened — but it was Apple’s own programming paradigms that allowed it do so in the first place. And if Apple really cared about curbing surveillance capitalism, why would it take 15 years to make cross-app tracking opt-in? It’s not like “caring about privacy” is a now position for Apple — in 2010, for example, Steve Jobs famously said: “We’ve always had a very different view of privacy than some of our colleagues in the valley. We take privacy extremely seriously.” The answer is that Apple benefits from surveillance capitalism, too, if only directly: for example, it is hard to ignore that Apple gets $12 billion dollars a year from Google to ensure that Google is the default search engine on iOS devices.
So why all the privacy concern now? Part of it is economics. Selling ads is only a small part of Apple’s business; they make most of their money from selling hardware and charging access to their platform. So, by hamstring targeted ads, Apple hurts its competitors without much hurting itself. Part of it is timing. People are increasingly concerned about the surveillance capitalism employed by companies like Google and Facebook. Sentiment towards Big Tech and its role in society is largely negative and it seems like rallying against Big Tech is one of the few bipartisan issues that remain in the U.S. There has never been a better time for Apple to differentiate itself by being a privacy champion. And part of it is theatrics. Apple has been very particular in its approach to “enhancing consumer privacy” — it is no surprise that its privacy improvements are specifically those that are visible to consumers and that make its competitors look bad, instead of, say, opening its closed ecosystem to allow for independent verification and validation by security and privacy experts.
If Apple could make more money exploiting privacy, would it? I’m sure it would. Apple is not exactly a paragon of the people — it practices plenty of exploitative capitalism to enhance profits. Apple is a large corporation as beholden to Increasing Shareholder Value as any other large corporation.
But, ultimately, I’m less concerned about any hypocrisy — real or perceived — in Apple’s current positioning of itself as a champion for consumer privacy. In a computing ecosystem where surveillance capitalism is the de-facto model of mass commercial success, we should not underestimate the value of having a big player on the side of consumer privacy protection — even if for no other reason than to spite its competitors and make a buck. By normalizing the prioritization of consumer privacy in the release of their products, Apple is helping to shift the entire market of consumer technology products. Slowly, caring about privacy will become part of the identity of Apple consumers — and there are a lot of those. This means that more people will start to consciously look for privacy protections when choosing what to buy. In the ever-present one-upmanship of consumerism, privacy will become a tie-breaker. And this increased demand will result in more focus on increasing consumer privacy protections more broadly. If, two or ten years from now, Apple reneges on its position, it will do so after having changed the market for the better — though this change will not be permanent if we are not careful.
Indeed, we are already seeing its effects — workaday developers on Stack Overflow are now seeking out privacy-respecting programming patterns when accessing users’ cameras and microphones on iOS, because they do not want the camera or microphone indicators to turn on when a user is not expecting them to turn on. Even behemoths like Google are now seeking privacy-preserving alternatives to web tracking for targeted advertisements, though their proposed solutions may be problematic in their own right. It’s a start.
Whether or not Apple is only pretending does not bother me, as long as the downstream effects promote greater consideration of consumer privacy in computing. After all, we are what we pretend to be.
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