Tuesday 11 June 2019 5:13 am

Don’t believe the hype, Apple is no better at privacy than any other tech company

Dr Zoetanya Sujon is programme director of communications and media at the London College of Communication, UAL

Apple, much loved by its users, is jumping on the privacy bandwagon.

Announcing the launch of its service “sign in with Apple” last week, this single sign-on promises to protect your privacy.

It all sounds great, until you take a closer look at what privacy actually means to Apple.

This single sign-on service protects some aspects of users’ identities from app developers, namely your email. This means that the people who make the apps you use will be able to collect much less data than they have previously.

The key word here is “less”, as they are still able to collect and share your data. We know this because Apple’s privacy policy, like most digital and social media privacy policies, says that it “and its affiliates may share this personal information with each other”.

Other tech giants, like Facebook and Google, have a similar record of claiming to care about privacy while in practice showing little regard for it. But Apple’s misleading claims are unique for a few reasons.

First, Apple works as a kind of walled garden. In terms of privacy, this means that instead of making money from targeted advertising, it profits from the sale of high-end products to its tribe of loyal users – so it doesn’t have to sell data like Facebook and Google do. Yet Apple still shares data across its many product teams and services – and with any other affiliates it chooses.

Apple’s new single sign-on service effectively puts up a wall between users’ email addresses and app developers – probably in response to recent claims that the average iPhone has something like 5,400 trackers collecting user data per day – but it still collects data.

Second, Apple’s definition of personal information is really narrow. This is important. By defining it as any “data that can be used to identify or contact a single person”, Apple is free to collect and use other kinds of data, not covered by this definition, that are personal and hugely valuable.

This data can be used to generate personality profiles, including your political affiliations and voting behaviour. It can be used by Apple and its affiliates to develop and personalise products, services, content, and advertising.

Third, Apple’s privacy policy straight-up tells us that the company can collect information about other people, a well-known tactic most closely associated with Facebook’s shadow profiles, whereby a company collects information and creates profiles for people who have never joined its social network using affiliates’ data. If you ask me, information about who I know is personal, even if it’s not used to contact me.

In short, Apple’s new single sign-on service is not about privacy but about differentiating its brand in a crowded market increasingly marked by headlines about data intrusions, social media leaks, and corporate surveillance.

Apple does this branding really well, but watch out. Typically, single sign-on services mean that companies can more easily share your data across sites, apps, and in this case, across the Apple platform – as well as its affiliates’ sites and services.

Apple’s new promise to protect users’ privacy as a fundamental human right is just that: a promise. A promise that will better serve its branding purposes than its users.

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