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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.

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.

It's not hard to see why this makes sense from Apple's point of view. It only takes a few minutes spent navigating the Web before you start noticing ads that seemingly follow you everywhere you go, and appear to know a bit more about you and your habits than you feel comfortable with. Add to that the endless leaks of classified documents that show how keen our governments are on keeping close tabs on their citizens, and you end up with a marketing opportunity that plays right to Apple's strengths.

Focusing on privacy allows Apple to align its marketing strategy with the needs of its customers through a value proposition that is simple and easy to understand: The folks from Cupertino sell us hardware, we pay for it, and that's the end of it — there is no need for Apple to try and make money by mining us like so many deposits of data that can be repackaged and sold to third parties, either directly or indirectly.

Speaking from a position of privilege

As much as I like Apple's position, I feel a twinge of guilt at the fact that the company's brand of privacy comes — quite literally — at a price. Not everyone can afford a Mac or an iPhone, and it's probably fair to say that billions of people in today's world are only able to access the Internet thanks to "free" services that rely on data mining to sell ads.

It's obviously not Apple's job to figure out a way for other companies to balance their need for revenue with the rights of their users, but it's also unconscionable to blindly accept the vision of a future in which only the well-off can afford to protect their lives from unwanted attention.

Digging a little deeper, Apple's marketing blitz has a more significant problem: It requires actually trusting Apple, and that's a much harder thing to do than it seems.

Can you really trust a company?

Regardless of how much effort it puts into creating a privacy-conscious environment, Apple will always need to collect some data from us. For example, using iCloud for email means that all your messages have, for practical reasons, to go through the company's servers in unencrypted form. Even where end-to-end encryption can be used, as is the case with Messages, the mere fact that a message is being exchanged between two users could, under the right conditions, be a very valuable piece of information.

 

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