At an event Monday, as Apple debuted a new TV streaming service, an Apple Pay credit card, a gaming service, and a subscription news service, the company reiterated a theme over and over again: We actually give a shit about your privacy — unlike other tech companies.
Apple’s News+ subscription service won’t track what you read, and the company promised to never share your data with advertisers (boooo advertisers). Its new Apple TV+ streaming service won’t out you on Twitter for watching a sappy Christmas movie on repeat. Its Apple Pay–connected credit card won’t track your purchases or data about your transactions. And its gaming subscription service, Apple Arcade, won’t collect any data about how you play games without your consent.
Apple didn’t mention Facebook or Google during the event, but its digs at those companies’ privacy and user data practices were clear. Last year, when MSNBC asked Tim Cook how he’d lead Facebook through the Cambridge Analytica scandal, he looked befuddled and said, “I wouldn’t be in this situation.” (We stan a shade chief officer, a title Cook enshrined by changing his Twitter name to Tim [Apple emoji] after President Trump called him “Tim Apple” during a meeting in March.)
It’s true that Apple’s main business model is to sell phones and computers, not advertising. So it makes sense that it doesn’t exploit users’ personal data in the same way advertising-based businesses like Facebook and Google do. But the new services Apple announced today, by their very nature, will accumulate some of their users’ personal data — among other things, actions we choose, information we enter, things we purchase, and shows we watch. So today the company was all about reassuring people: Don’t worry, we’re still the good guy. Apple has long taken a protective stance on privacy, but it’s now using its approach to user data as a powerful marketing tool to sell more of its laptops, phones, news subscriptions, and entertainment services. (Apple declined to comment on this story.)
Apple’s attitude toward privacy hasn’t always been celebrated. In 2015, when the company refused to help the FBI unlock an iPhone that belonged to one of the San Bernardino shooters, it was a controversial move. While some saw Apple taking a stand as an admirable commitment to their customers, plenty of others criticized the company for refusing to aid in the investigation of a horrific mass murder.
Then Cambridge Analytica happened, and everyone — everyone! — started giving a shit — a big shit! — about privacy. There had always been amorphous creepiness, a general, fuzzy outline of creepiness surrounding how tech giants handled people’s personal information — “Isn’t it so creepy how you buy shoes on one website, and then an ad for the thing you just bought follows you around the internet?” “Haha, couldn’t you just swear Instagram is listening to our conversations?” But suddenly, even if people didn’t understand all the details, many realized that privacy on the internet was fundamentally broken.
Facebook reacted to the public and political outrage by running full-page newspaper ads saying, “We have a responsibility to protect your information. If we can’t, we don’t deserve it.” But over the following year, the company has admitted to a series of security flaws and missteps, including leaks and breaches that exposed people’s search histories and nonpublic photos. Just last week, it was revealed that Facebook had stored millions of users’ passwords in plaintext files. This has led many people to conclude that no, Facebook does not deserve their data.
The overwhelming malaise of digital advertising has worn us down. “No matter how many times the industry explains lookalike audiences and location signals or whatever else is going on, people will continue to assume — if not argue vehemently — that Facebook is listening to them. Ads are sick, and the only cure is extreme transparency,” wrote Nilay Patel in the Verge.
It’s easy to point the finger at advertising as the culprit. Digital advertising is the greedy, hungry baby bird in the nest, with mama birds Facebook and Google feeding its mewling maw with worms of your data. Advertising = bad. No advertising = good. Facebook, bad. Apple, good. Cheep cheep, mommy.
So when Apple announced its new services Monday and referenced their built-in privacy and data protections like they are essential design features, people applauded.
It’s a fun reverie to imagine the world as Apple envisioned it at today’s event: a place where privacy is the norm, where we don’t assume that we are basically already fucked, and where we don’t expect a new, massive leak to hit a huge service and lead to our email addresses being published on haveibeenpwned.com. Or where it’s reasonable to assume a tech giant won’t store your password in a plaintext file. Or that it won’t sell your data to Russian trolls trying to trick you into not voting.
Imagine that for just a moment…nice, isn’t it? But it seems like there’s no turning back at this point. The internet we have is the one we made, and we’re stuck with it. Apple’s little secure oases can’t undo the diarrhea storm in progress.
Leading up to its spring event, Apple put out a TV ad that was all about the iPhone’s privacy features. It’s funny and cute, even cheeky. It serves as a friendly little reminder: Hey, we’re the good guys. Not naming any names *cough* Facebook *cough* Google *cough* everyone else.
But as Apple takes a victory lap on privacy and boasts about how it has eschewed advertising for its users’ sake, it’s worth remembering: This is just part of Apple’s advertising plan. The company understands that, right now, people desperately want more control over their personal information. And so it’s using privacy — this time, the idea of it, not the lack of it — to sell you more phones and streaming TV services and credit cards.