Apple’s new privacy push angers Facebook – but called ‘a defining moment’ by NZ Privacy Commissioner

OPINION:

Apple marked International Data Privacy Day by announcing a new privacy push.

A pending update to iOS (the software that runs iPhones and iPads), due next spring, will require apps to get a user’s permission before tracking their data across apps or websites owned by other companies.

It follows another recent Apple initiative: requiring app makers to display “nutrition”-style labels on apps in its App Store – designed to reveal at a glance what personal data is collected by any piece of software, and what it does with it.

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On average, apps include six “trackers” from other companies, which have the sole purpose of collecting and tracking people and their personal information, Apple says – the better to target online ads.

A rep for the company said such information was often sold to data brokers, who could build up a profile of up to 5000 data points about a person’s demographics, habits and preferences.

After being introduced by NZ Privacy Commissioner John Edwards, Apple CEO Tim Cook outlined his company’s new “App Tracking Transparency” feature at the Computers, Privacy and Data Protection conference earlier today (NZ time).

Cook did not name Facebook directly, but appeared to be taking aim at the social network as he described a business model that relies on mass and frequent user engagement – but is at times lightly policed, in some of its critics’ opinion.

“At a moment of rampant disinformation and conspiracy theories juiced by algorithms, we can no longer turn a blind eye to a theory of technology that says all engagement is good engagement — the longer the better — and all with the goal of collecting as much data as possible,” Cook said.

“Too many are still asking the question, ‘how much can we get away with?,’ when they need to be asking, ‘what are the consequences?’ … What are the consequences of not just tolerating, but rewarding content that undermines public trust in life-saving vaccinations?”

Edwards called Cook’s speech “inspirational” as he threw to a discussion panel of international privacy experts, who broadly shared his positive take on the CEO’s presentation and Apple’s new policies.

Shortly after, Edwards told the Herald: “I think it’s a really significant step – this is one of the defining moments of the digital age. I really think this is true. Apple’s been able to achieve some that policymakers and regulators have not been able to.”

He added: “The spotlight now shines on Google to demand similar standards of transparency for apps in its Play store.”

In a blogpost published yesterday, Google’s group product manager for Google Ads, Christophe Combette, said many of the apps Apple was targeting “already have user consent”, implying Tim Cook’s company should not be the one to play sheriff.

More tracking than most think

Apple has countered with a “Day in the Life of Your Data” presentation, designed to outline the scope of user tracking, both online and offline (Facebook and others purchase information about consumers’ habits from partners. So if, for example, you visit a Domino’s bricks and mortar store to buy a pizza, the social network could still receive information about your location, how much you spent and what you spent it on – leading to the scenario where you can be targeted with an online add even for a product you’ve never mentioned online).

Edwards said there was scope for many Big Tech players to be more up-front about how they use people’s data.

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“If you don’t have enough confidence in your business model to be transparent with your users, maybe you need to question your business model?”

He added: “Some companies are starting to see some of the value that users place on privacy – but also the cost of acting in a seedy way. I think we’re starting to turn a corner.”

While things were finally moving in the right direction, plenty of cautionary tales remained, Edwards said.

One of the conference panelists, Privacy International’s Lucy Purdon, Privacy International, said information from menstruation-tracking apps, and apps for new mothers, was still being sold to data brokers without the knowledge of the people using the software.

Facebook fights back

Pointedly, an Apple presentation released shortly before Cook’s speech used Facebook as an example of an app that could be blocked from tracking your activity.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hit back during an earnings conference call with analysts, saying: “Apple may say that they are doing this to help people, but the moves clearly track their competitive interests.”

Earlier, the Facebook boss complained that Apple’s own iMessage would be exempt from its new labelling process, because it comes with an iPhone rather than having to be downloaded from its App Store – giving Apple apps a free pass and a leg up on competing products.

A rep for Apple told the Herald: “Like all App Store guidelines, the new requirement for privacy information on the App Store applies equally to all iOS apps, including all Apple apps.

“[While] iOS apps that don’t have dedicated product pages on the App Store will still have the new same privacy information available to users on our website.”

Who's right? Follow the money

In many corporate disputes, interests are often clarified if you follow the money.

In this case, Apple earns the bulk of its profits from selling you iPhones, iPads, Macs, software and services.

Google and Facebook, by contrast, gain most of their revenue from selling advertising around free services – which means selling information about you for micro-targeting. As the tech industry maxim goes, if you’re not paying for it, then you are the product.

On his conference call, Zuckerberg said Apple is fast becoming one of Facebook’s “biggest competitors” in part because of its dominance in messaging on the iPhone. Apple, he said, “has every incentive” to use its own mobile platform to interfere with how rival apps work.

For its part, Google said it was developing an alternative to Apple’s unique identifier system. Apple for years has supplied apps with a unique identifier, known as IDFA, to help it link the same user across multiple programs, according to a Reuters report.

Google’s Combette said in his blog post: “We are working hard to understand and comply with Apple’s guidelines for all of our apps in the App Store.

“We’ve always put users and their privacy first. Transparency, choice and control form the bedrock of our commitment to users, and advertising is no different. We remain committed to preserving a vibrant and open app ecosystem where people can access a broad range of ad-supported content with confidence that their privacy and choices are respected.”

Weaponised data

Earlier, as he introduced Cook, Edwards recalled an address the Apple boss made to a conference of privacy commissioners from around the world a little over two years ago.

“He threw down a gauntlet to what he called the ‘Data Industrial Complex’, admitting that our own information, from the everyday to the deeply personal, is being weaponised against us with military efficiency,” Edwards said.

“He quoted Steve Jobs, who said, ‘Privacy needs people to know what they’re signing up for, in plain language and repeatedly’,”.

“With that address, Apple proclaimed its leadership in the drive to put users of technology back into control over their data.

“It has meant taking risks, and even creating conflict with other Silicon Valley businesses.

“But do not listen to the detractors. This has not and will not end the internet, or reduce its utility or accessibility.”

Afterwards, the Privacy Commissioner conceded that as good as Apple’s new policies are on paper, the proof will come in the months ahead as they’re introduced – and we see how tough the company is with its enforcement.

A rep for Apple said the company could potentially block an app – or a publisher – from its App Store if they fail to follow its new privacy policies.

It’s still to be seen how forcefully the policy will be policed. With its “nutrition labels”, Apple has taken a softly-softly approach, allowing developers to hold-off introducing them until the next time they upgrade an app.

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