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Data Drop Extra: Is Apple 'Thinking Different' about Data Privacy?

Updated: Mar 31, 2021

Apple’s recent announcement of new data privacy protections got us wondering - what exactly is Apple’s history with data privacy?

Apple has long positioned itself as a proponent of data privacy. In fact, their recent publication on the topic opens with a quote from late co-founder Steve Jobs, speaking at the “All Things Digital” conference way back in 2010.

I believe people are smart and some people want to share more data than other people do. Ask them. Ask them every time. Make them tell you to stop asking them if they get tired of your asking them. Let them know precisely what you’re going to do with their data.

- Late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs

It's worth noting that two separate groups of iPhone and iPad users had sued Apple earlier that year with allegations that certain apps were passing personal information to third-party advertisers.

In April 2011, Apple agreed to amend its developer agreement to stop such data sharing from happening - "except for information directly necessary for the functionality of the apps."

However, the suit alleged that Apple took no steps to do this or enforce it "in any meaningful way due to criticism from advertising networks.”

In August 2011, Tim Cook becomes the new CEO of Apple after the death of Steve Jobs. He is quick to reaffirm the company's commitment to privacy. The case was dismissed in September 2011.

Fast forward to 2016, when Apple received a writ ordering them to create specialized software that would allow the FBI to unlock the iPhone used by a suspect in a San Bernardino shooting that left 14 people dead. The FBI wanted Apple to create a special version of its iOS that would accept an unlimited combination of passwords electronically, allowing them to use brute force hacking to crack the suspect’s 4-digit lock code. But Apple refused.

CEO Tim Cook and his team were convinced that such a version of iOS would be easily misused, leaked, or stolen, potentially undermining the security of hundreds of millions of Apple users.

We have a responsibility to protect your data and your privacy. We will not shrink from this responsibility.

- Apple CEO Tim Cook

Soon after, the FBI announced that it had gained access to the phone’s contents using a third-party tool. They subsequently dropped their request for help from Apple.

Skip to 2018, when Apple again asserted its stance as a champion of personal data protection in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

In many ways, Apple’s latest privacy announcement is a direct continuation of this philosophy.

But plans to improve data privacy and transparency have sparked a showdown in Silicon Valley, with Apple and privacy-rights advocates on one side and Facebook and other Big Data businesses on the other.

Apple will soon require that apps ask consumers to opt into data sharing and tracking. Currently, such permissions are generally on as a default, and customers can opt-out with a little effort (if they’re even aware of what’s happening to their data). Moving away from this could have a huge impact on targeted advertising.

Facebook, which relies heavily on targeted ad revenue, has not responded kindly to Apple’s initiative. The social media company placed full-page ads in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post accusing Apple of hurting small businesses.

When Facebook and other companies questioned the ethics behind Apple’s decision, Apple fired back by criticizing Facebook’s approach to advertising and user tracking in a written reply sent to several human rights and privacy organizations, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Human Rights Watch.

Facebook’s claims are based around a single metric: return on ad spend. Facebook asserts that campaigns leveraging personalized information generated 60% more return on ad spend than ads that didn’t. But controlled, randomized trials comparing personalized advertising with no advertising at all showed that personalized ads have only a minor impact on overall sales.

The conflict between Apple and Facebook continues to escalate, with Tim Cook criticizing the surveillance-based approach to ads during a presentation at this year's Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection conference. seems that no piece of information is too private or personal to be surveilled, monetized, and aggregated into a 360-degree view of your life. The end result of all of this is that you are no longer the customer, you’re the product.

- Apple CEO Tim Cook speaking at the Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection conference

Other companies predict losses far smaller than Facebook’s claim of 60%. In its latest earnings report, game-creation platform Unity Software predicted the changes, “will reduce our revenue by approximately $30 million, or 3% of revenue, in 2021.”

Other social media companies are taking a wait-and-see approach. In prepared remarks for its Q4 earnings report, Snap CFO Derek Andersen said, “It is not clear yet what the longer-term impact of those changes may be for the topline momentum of our business, and this may not be clear until several months or more after the changes are implemented.” Snap CEO Evan Spiegel added, “The reality is we admire Apple, and we believe that they are trying to do the right thing for their customers.”

So what happens next?

The big question right now is whether or not Facebook will move forward with litigation against Apple. There are reports that Facebook is readying a lawsuit, which it has yet to file.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has called Apple one of Facebook's biggest direct competitors, citing their iMessage service in particular as a direct threat to Facebook’s offerings of WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. The suit would build on these claims and contend that Apple is abusing its power by forcing developers to follow App Store rules that Apple itself does not have to follow. This could delay or even end Apple’s new privacy rules.

So what does Apple have to gain from all of this? Why would Apple risk litigation, as well as provoke tensions with Facebook and other tech giants?

Apple has said it is making these changes to protect consumers, and their defense of individual privacy over the past half-decade certainly makes this possible. But it is also possible that Apple is trying to head off regulators intent on crafting stronger privacy laws down the road. It's also entirely possible that Apple recognizes the growing attention consumers are paying to data privacy and is simply looking to capitalize on that.

Meanwhile, Google has announced plans to limit data collection across apps in the Android ecosystem, but their approach will be less strict than Apple's. For one, it would skip the pop-up prompt from app developers.

So what does it all mean for the future of data privacy?

Even if you opt-out of sharing data, ads aren’t going away anytime soon. Refusing to share your data means you’ll get more generic ads, like in the early days of the web. It also might not mean as much for your data privacy as you may have hoped. Even if you opt-out of everything, algorithms can still profile you based on information provided by friends, family, and neighbors. Facebook, for example, uses such second-hand information to create so-called “shadow profiles” for users, even for people who have never created Facebook accounts.

We are prisoners of other people’s consent

written by Martin Tisné, the managing director of Luminate, and Marietje Schaake, the international policy director of the Cyber Policy Center

If nothing else, Apple's efforts will help give data privacy the attention it deserves. There are over 100-million iPhone users in the USA, and Apple's new privacy policy will make sure data security is literally in front of their faces on a regular basis.


The Data Drop is a production of the Data Collaboration Alliance, a nonprofit working to advance data ownership through pilot projects in sustainability, healthcare, education, and social inclusion. We also offer free training in the Data Collaboration methodology. Listen to the Data Drop on our website or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.


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