With Apple, you’re the customer. With Google, you’re the product.

My friend has taken to repeating this phrase every time Google is outed in another privacy scandal. So my friend says it a lot.

With Apple, you’re the customer. With Google, you’re the product.

Most of us got our first glimpse of what it means to be an Apple customer back in 2014 when Apple released Apple Pay and vowed users wouldn’t be profiled, saying they would use their AI tech to prevent their users’ purchases from being tracked. We saw it again in 2016 when Apple went toe-to-toe with the FBI over a locked iPhone. The government wanted Apple to hack into the device and turn over encrypted data, and then build a permanent loophole into all devices for similar policing situations; Apple refused. At that point, some questioned the company’s endgame, but no one could doubt their stance on user privacy. In the years since, that commitment has only continued to grow, while Apple’s reputation as the data watchmen of the industry has solidified.

Perhaps, as a company cornerstone, the privacy issue might’ve lost its buzz. Maybe it would’ve quieted down and chugged along, fairly under-the-radar. It’s possible, except other entities – from Equifax to Goole to Facebook – have continued to get privacy so, so wrong.

On March 17, The Guardian and The New York Times broke the story that 50 million Facebook profiles (later revised to more than 87 million) had been trawled for Cambridge Analytica in a gargantuan data scandal. On March 25, Facebook apologized that they “didn’t do more at the time” about the data harvesting. On April 10, in prepared remarks, Mark Zuckerberg announced: “Over the past few weeks, we’ve been working to understand exactly what happened with Cambridge Analytica and taking steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Meanwhile, on March 29, Tim Cook lambasted Zuckerberg for profiting off of users’ personal information. "Privacy to us is a human right,” he said. “It’s a civil liberty, and is something that is unique to America. This is like freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and privacy is right up there for us.”.

When asked what he would do if he were in Zuckerberg’s shoes, Cook was actually cheerful. “What would I do? I wouldn’t be in this situation.”

Historically, that holds up. Back in 2014, when the company made that Apple Pay privacy pronouncement, Cook wrote, explicitly: “When an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product. But at Apple, we believe a great customer experience shouldn’t come at the expense of your privacy.” At the 2016 Worldwide Developers Conference, after the San Bernardino shooting and the showdown with the feds, Apple’s senior VP of Software Engineering, Craig Federighi, announced a slew of security upgrades Apple termed “differential privacy,” with iOS 10. Apple began to use hashing, subsampling and noise injection to ensure private user data stayed that way.

Most recently, during the keynote for WWDC 2018, Federighi again proclaimed that Apple was putting privacy front-and-center, promising that in macOS Mojave and iOS 12, Safari will scrub identifying information that could trace data back to individuals. Essentially, data is collected and then obscured, so users can still use Maps and receive recommendations for local restaurants, without forming a chute into which they’re inadvertently pouring their entire life story. Safari will also stop supporting legacy plugins, which have been linked to data breaches.

Apple is calling the 2018 upgrades “Intelligent Tracking Prevention 2.0.” It includes changes to WebKit, like getting rid of a 24-hour grace period that used to provide trackers a day of cookie access, and protection against tracker collusion.

Notably, all of the anti-tracking features in the Safari upgrade are a direct offensive against ad tech. Especially the ad tech employed by Facebook (and, to some extent, Google (Android)). Intelligent Tracking Prevention 2.0 blocks the ability of ad networks to follow users via Facebook activity and Like buttons.

Google isn’t quite as bad as Facebook, and they have been steadily adding ad-blocking and anti-tracking systems to their own arsenal of products. Nonetheless, Google’s entire revenue model is built on figuring out what its users are interested in and serving up relevant content. In fact, Google makes 86 percent of its revenue on advertising, so not tracking what their customers do, where they go, and what they want seems unwise from a business perspective, (they can’t exactly serve up clickable ads if they’re not delivering targeted content). Google’s retail products are always priced less than Apple, because Google (a software company) makes their money from what their users do while using their products. Apple’s products are significantly more expensive, but Apple is a hardware company. For the most part, once the sale is closed, the deal is done. From there, Apple wants the user to further invest in the Apple ecosystem, but that’s mostly accomplished through the accumulation of more hardware, not through selling ads.

Will Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention 2.0 bring down Facebook? No. Although Safari is the world’s most-used mobile browser, with 51.7 percent market share, and the intelligence tools are included in both the desktop and mobile versions of Safari, Facebook hasn’t made any moves to suggest they’re running scared. But Zuckerberg continues to play defense over the Cambridge Analytica fiasco. Google’s response to Apple’s security upgrades are more upgrades on their end, but no real change in how they do business. Unless governments are able to eliminate security concerns (which seems unlikely in a world where they can be counted among the entities trying to mine our data), consumers will have to remain vigilant about their vulnerability to data breaches. Which company has a proven history of being the superhero here? Apple, and they appear to have control of the court. To make any real security advances on their end, Facebook and Google will have to upend their revenue models; it remains to be seen if they’ll be able to play ball. For now, most customers don’t seem worried enough about privacy to make it the key decision in their purchasing behavior. But with so many data breaches, it’s likely that at some point, many of those customers are going to start thinking different; they’ll want to stop feeling like a product and choose Apple.




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