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By Thomas Baekdal - June 2015

Apple and Privacy, Just like Google

One thing that really annoys me about Apple is how it is using its reality distortion field to twist the message. The latest example is how Apple is talking about privacy.

Only a week ago, Tim Cook said this:

I'm speaking to you from Silicon Valley where some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information. They're gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it. We think that's wrong. And it's not the kind of company that Apple wants to be. So we don't want your data.

We don't think they're worth have your email or your search history or now even your family photos data-mined and sold-off for God-knows-what advertising purpose.

And then, at the WWDC Keynote, they announced the new Apple News app. What does this app do? Well... I quote from their product page:

The stories you really care about. The more you read, the more personalized the News app becomes, refining the selection of stories delivered to your screen so they are relevant to you. Easily share articles with others and save them to read offline. News stays on top of the stories you're interested in. So you can, too.

So... how can Apple learn what it is that you are interested in, and deliver that information to you without tracking people?

Granted, at the keynote, Craig Federighi also displayed a slide pointing out the privacy features for Apple News. These included:

Clearly pointing their fingers at Google.

First of all, this is a weird way of doing things. Not having the news targeting data linked to your Apple ID means that it can't be used across devices. Your iPhone and your iPad won't know which is which. And if you buy a new iPhone, you will have to teach your news app all over again from scratch.

What's the point of that? That's not a privacy issue. That's just terrible UX.

It's also not linked to other Apple services, meaning that Apple won't be able to show you news from where you are in Apple Maps, compared to your personal interests. That seems like a weird limitation, and again, poor UX.

Finally, we have the "Not shared with third parties".

It's so annoying. Why, because neither is Google. It's the same thing. Google isn't sharing anything. No advertiser sees any user data, ever.

It's like when you advertise in a newspaper. You pay the newspaper to display the ad in the right section. But as an advertiser, you have no clue as to who it reaches. You just know it has been targeted right.

That's how Google Adwords work.

More to the point, tools like Google Analytics work almost exactly like Apple News. It too is anonymous, not associated with people's Google IDs, uses randomized identifiers, not linked to other Google services, nor is it shared with third parties.

Granted, you can add aggregated demographic data to this as well, in which case it does link to Google Adwords, but it's still anonymous, and you have no way to track that on an individual level.

I get so annoyed by this. Apple is promoting itself as the savior of privacy online, bashing Google and others with vaguely misleading statements along the way.

That said, there are genuine concerns about privacy as well.

For instance, there is a real problem around the whole industry of data brokers. These are companies who are buying and selling user data to the highest bidder, from anywhere. For instance, when you go into Target to buy a t-shirt, they will end up knowing your age, income, social status, your food preferences, and sometimes even your medical history.

Similarly, when I then go into another store a week later, then they suddenly also know that I bought a T-shirt.

That's not right. That's terrible! It should be illegal for companies to buy/sell/share their data. (and indeed it is in my country).

If I go into a store, whatever I do and whatever I buy in this store should be kept between the store and me. It is a massive violation of trust when that store sells this information to others.

That is a real privacy problem.

This also extends to websites. If I visit a newspaper, what I read should not be bought and sold by other companies. That is an interaction purely between me and the newspaper.

The newspaper can target me all it wants based on the interaction that has taken place between us. But when I then visit another newspaper, they shouldn't be allowed to know what topics of articles I read elsewhere.

This is the whole concept of privacy.

Apple is doing this right because what it tracks is kept within Apple. Which is good. And that is also how Google works. Whatever you do on Google, stays with Google.

But the rest of Apple PR bashing about privacy is just that, PR.

Look at Apple Music, which will be available on iPhone, iPad, Mac, Windows and Android. Here you can create your own playlists, follow artists, like, comment and share things.

The only way they can do that is by linking your actions to your Apple ID. How else would it be able to show you the playlist on your phone that you just created on your Mac? How else would it be able to keep track and notify you across devices when there is an update to something you engage with?

So, Apple is using your data, just like everyone else. As Apple says on their site (about Apple Music)

Enjoy recommendations handpicked just for you or explore everything they find that's new and noteworthy in the world of music. It's all yours.

Even with a library this massive, finding the music you're looking for is easy. The intelligent search engine remembers whether you're looking in your local library or the Apple Music library, so you get results from the place you expect. You can also browse music you've looked for previously, and see what searches are trending.

Tell us what you like. Discover something you'll love. When you tell us the genres and bands you're into, we'll bring you more suggestions from our experts who know and love music. They're out at the big shows and the small gigs, combing scenes to bring you emerging artists and deep cuts, and creating playlists that feel like they're coming from a friend who knows exactly what you want to hear.

The more you listen, the better we hear you. When we make recommendations, we consider what you tell us you like. Whether you love a song or not, your feedback helps our suggestions get better and better. But we also pay attention to what you actually play. So if you're an EDM fan with a secret affinity for big band music, we'll find you more stuff that swings. And drops the beat.

How is this not exactly the same as what Google is doing with their services?

Oh, you say. But Apple isn't using this to sell advertising. Really?

Here is the description of ad targeting for the Apple News app:

Monetization of Apple News Format content is simple with iAd, Apple's advertising platform. When monetizing with iAd, you'll have access to iAd's segmentation capabilities, so your advertisers can reach just the right audience within your content. iAd targeting is accurate and scalable, and based on registration data from hundreds of millions of validated Apple users.

And here is what Apple writes about iAds in Apple Music:

Apple Music brings the world's largest community of music fans together all in one place with an expertly curated subscription music service, the world's most popular digital music store, and free streaming radio, including the world's first global live station, Beats 1, all in one app. iAd provides marketers with exclusive access to Apple Music listeners.

Radio on Apple Music brings the best of iAd to the best in music programming: only iAd has the targeting capabilities borne from Apple user insights, and the integration into Apple hardware and software to bring commercial messages to life across iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Apple TV, as well as on Mac and PC.

Advertisers can reach Apple Music listeners with audio and video ads while they're listening to Radio, and also while they're shopping, playing, and reading in hundreds of thousands of other apps.

And they will integrate iAds with Apple Wallet too:

iAd helps marketers push Offers to iPhone

Offers allow marketers to put customized, dynamic messages directly into the Wallet that's built into every iPhone - and accessible via Apple Watch.

Marketers can reach loyal customers with specific messages that reflect the customers' interests, or convert a new customer by presenting a reason to try something new.

Because iPhones are location-aware, so are Offers. Offers can be updated to present new messages dynamically, and also triggered with updates specific to a store location via iBeacon. Offers can also be targeted by age, gender, geography, or custom segments built by the marketer, and updated as often as required to keep messages fresh.

So, when Apple said that it was anonymous, not associated with Apple ID, uses a random identifier, nor linked to other Apple services, that apparently only applies to all the things that aren't iAds. Because with iAds, they can accurately target your content to millions of Apple users.

And how many targeting options do they offer? Oh, just about 400:

Keep in mind that you can only create this level of targeting if you are tracking people. And they can only deliver those ads if they know who is using what, and when ...again, exactly the way Google does it.

This is why I get so annoyed when I hear Apple's PR machine talk about privacy. First, we have Tim Cook saying: "They're gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it. We think that's wrong. And it's not the kind of company that Apple wants to be. So we don't want your data."

Then they launch three new services; Apple Wallet, Apple Music and Apple News, all featuring individual targeting, tracking and tailoring... all including direct integration to iAds. And all of the messages above was posted on Apple's website *after* Tim Cook made his privacy statement to the press.

I call shenanigans.

Both Apple and Google track what you do. Both companies use that information. And both companies keep that information within themselves, thus ensuring your privacy stays intact.

There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, as they both show, doing this creates much better products for you and me. I have absolutely no problem with Apple using data about user's interests and behavior to create better products, nor do I have anything against iAds. There are plenty of examples of where it creates opportunities for people that otherwise wouldn't exist.

But, this whole debate is a distraction.

Let's instead focus on the much more important issue of data brokers, and how data from one site is sold or given to others, thus causing one company to know what you did in another store.

That is the real issue we should be dealing with. Not how data is used between us and the individual companies that we have chosen to be a part of.

 
 
 

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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé

 

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