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Apple's Latest Product Is Privacy

In effect, privacy itself is now a key product -- and a key marketing point -- for Apple, as much as the Apple Watch or the skinny new MacBook.


Apple loves to use bold, explanatory slides at its big events. Sometimes it lists product features and prices. Sometimes it brags about sales figures.

But, earlier this week, at Apple’s 2015 Worldwide Developers Conference, I noticed some slides devoted to something else: Privacy.

Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, Craig Federighi, who was onstage to present new “proactive” artificial intelligence features of the next iPhone operating system, paused before one of the slides to make the company’s devotion to privacy clear.

Yes, he said, the new software will try to anticipate your information needs, based on things like your calendar and location — something that its rival, Google, already does. But, Federighi added, “we do it in a way that does not compromise your privacy. We don’t mine your email, your photos, or your contacts in the cloud to learn things about you. We honestly just don’t wanna know.”

He continued: “All of this is done on [the] device, and it stays on [the] device, under your control.” And Apple says that if it does have to perform a lookup [online] on your behalf, it’s anonymous, it’s not associated with your Apple ID, and it’s not shared with third parties.

In case you missed that point, Federighi immediately repeated: “You are in control.”

These bold assurances about privacy weren’t a first for Apple. But their prominence at its big annual event escalated a recent campaign to emphasize that the tech giant stands for privacy — and that, by implication, Google does not. At the same time, Apple’s case for privacy isn’t airtight.

In effect, privacy itself is now a key product — and a key marketing point — for Apple, as much as the Apple Watch or the skinny new MacBook. (I can’t help but wonder whether we’ll one day see Apple privacy ads during the Super Bowl, complete with the company’s typical gorgeous images and earnest executives speaking against a glow-y white background.)

Apple CEO Tim Cook has led the charge, in speeches, TV appearances, and in an unusual personal message to Apple customers that tops a detailed privacy website that the company now hosts.

 Apple has a privacy page with a pledge from CEO Tim Cook.
Apple has a privacy page with a pledge from CEO Tim Cook.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Apple is being phony here. Based on multiple conversations with its top officials, I think the company really does believe in bolstering privacy, and has considered this important since at least the debut of the iPhone in 2007. Apple’s co-founder, the late Steve Jobs, spoke about it repeatedly as a core value.

While I’m not an engineer, I also believe Apple’s own hardware and software is carefully designed to keep sensitive data on the device, rather than in the cloud, wherever possible. Everything from your fingerprint for Touch ID to your credit card for Apple Pay is stored on encrypted chips inside the phone, not in the cloud.

That’s contrary to the race to the cloud embraced by much of the tech industry. For instance, Google computers scan your Gmail to better target ads at you. And the search giant urges people to sign in to all its cloud-based services — even on Apple devices — so each can learn more about you, both to improve the information they serve up and to better target ads. Many see this as a virtue.

But Apple is clear in its belief that users are better off if personal data is stored locally as much as possible. The company makes settings for enhancing privacy relatively clear and easy for its customers. And some of this week’s new product demos were designed to show that local device data, like cloud data, can provide rich, helpful intelligence.

Yet Apple’s case isn’t impregnable. And it’s able to use privacy as a marketing point at least in part because that stance happens to fit its business model, and is harder to reconcile with Google’s.

As Cook happily makes clear, his company makes money by selling devices, not advertising, which depends on the collection of massive amounts of data about users for targeting. Google, on the other hand, does make its money from advertising, and has a credo about collecting, and then making available, all the world’s information.

“Our business model is very straightforward: We sell great products.” Cook writes on the privacy website. “We don’t build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers. We don’t ‘monetize’ the information you store on your iPhone or in iCloud. And we don’t read your email or your messages to get information to market to you. Our software and services are designed to make our devices better. Plain and simple.”

Apple slide describing privacy features of its News app
Apple slide describing privacy features of its News app

Apple can have its cake and eat it too, to some extent. It encrypts its phones, and it has internal rules which prevent its own apps — like Siri, iTunes and Apple Maps — from fully cross-pollinating and sharing certain information.

But that iPhone in your hand also brings you the very kind of software Apple rails against. Google is the default search engine for the mobile Safari Web browser. The iPhone’s voice assistant, Siri, relies on Microsoft’s Bing search service, albeit anonymously. And Facebook and Twitter, frequently criticized by privacy advocates, are integrated into the phone for sharing.

Plus, many, many of the 1.5 million apps that are the heart of the iPhone experience depend on data collection and advertising, even if circumscribed somewhat by Apple policies.

Apple officials argue that they can only exert full control over their own hardware and software, and that third-party developers are required to adhere to some limitations, such as respecting the ad-tracking privacy setting.

Apple also has its own, small ad service, called iAd. But Cook says that iAd “sticks to the same privacy policy that applies to every other Apple product. It doesn’t get data from Health and HomeKit, Maps, Siri, iMessage, your call history, or any iCloud service like Contacts or Mail, and you can always just opt out altogether.”

Cook and Apple also deserve credit for publicly and repeatedly rebuffing government calls for policies that would make it easier for spy agencies to probe encrypted Apple hardware.

It will be up to consumers whether Apple’s privacy crusade becomes a hit product or only elicits shrugs. They will decide whether they prefer the benefits they get from trading privacy in the cloud to those they get from Apple’s approach.

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