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Apple's privacy play: A good start, but far from perfect

Marco Tabini | June 22, 2015
Unless you've been living under the proverbial rock, you've probably noticed how, in the last year or so, a parade of Apple executives has worked hard to bring the problem of digital privacy--and their company's solution to it--to the forefront of our attention.

Now, it seems easy to me to trust Tim Cook and his colleagues to handle this data the right way — they have, so far, managed a fine job of running one of the world's largest companies in a very ethical way, and they seem genuinely committed to making a difference in the way user information is gathered and used.

The problem is that these fine folks are not Apple: They are just Apple's management. Eventually, they will be replaced by other managers who may, or may not, share their view on how the privacy of their customers should be treated — and those new managers will still be sitting on a considerable cache of data that encompasses the digital lives of billions of people.

This may seem like splitting hairs, perhaps, but recent history is rife with examples in which the marriage of technology and data has, in the wrong hands, resulted in human suffering and the subtle disenfranchisement of minorities. More mundanely, we have the recent case of Radio Shack trying to sell its customer list as a bankruptcy asset, in clear violation of its own privacy policy.

Data-hungry is not necessarily evil

Opposite Apple's corner, we can find entities like Facebook and Google. The latter's very mission statement says that its goal is to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" — a goal that can, clearly, only be achieved if the company manages to collect that information in the first place.

I'm not a huge fan of ad-driven systems, but I don't entirely hate them. As I mentioned earlier, services like Gmail and Facebook have opened the Internet to many people who would be otherwise shut off of the incredible opportunities that the digital highway has to offer. They have also pioneered much of the "big data" work that is rapidly bringing about a revolution in everything from healthcare to traffic and transportation.

The problem with these companies is not that they are "evil," but, rather, that they trivialize the importance of privacy. The average Internet user is not equipped with the expertise required to understand that posting to Facebook or doing a search on Google really means inserting new rows in a giant database that never forgets, and that these "free" services are paid for by the data unwittingly fed into their systems.

Privacy, front and center

In the long term, I don't see that much practical distinction between Apple's model and Google's or Facebook's. Both require us to trust third parties over which we have no control with varying amounts of our most intimate information, and hope that they won't, at some point in the future, either change their minds or be forced to use the data in ways that will harm us.


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