Why Apple is fighting the likes of Facebook and Google over privacy

Selfish as it is in its privacy push, the tech giant is looking at greater good.

 |  4-minute read |   13-06-2018
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Behind the scenes, unknown to most iPhone and Mac users, Apple is fighting a bitter war to secure better privacy and data safety. And while the tech giant has talked about it from time to time because it is also a fight that is selfish, most of its users do not know about the company's approach to privacy in its entirety.

It is also a fight that no other Silicon Valley company, despite all the smooth talk about fixing privacy issues, is willing to pick up. There is no glory in this fight. There is no money to be made, or at least not the kind the company would otherwise earn. More significantly, it is a fight that no one wants to fight because it means going up against the likes of Facebook and Google. It also means saying goodbye to monetising user data, which goes against the popular business model that most Silicon Valley companies thrive on.

Apple, with the kind of name and size it has, can take on Facebook and the whole Silicon Valley advertising empire. And that is exactly what it has been doing for the last two odd years. Initially, the measures Apple took to guard user data and keep its iPhone and Mac users safe from Facebook and others were subtle.

iphone-690_061318071741.jpgOf late, with the talk about user privacy gaining some momentum, it has been bolder.

Of late, with the talk about user privacy gaining some momentum, it has been bolder.

Apple's boldest move — or should I say "courageous" given how Apple loves that word — came last week at the WWDC where the company unveiled new software for the iPhone and the Mac. At the event, Apple addressed the issue of privacy and in no uncertain terms launched a full frontal attack on Facebook, putting the company's name on the stage and saying that Apple was going to make sure that its users weren't tracked.

“We’ve all seen these like buttons and share buttons,” said Craig Federighi, Apple's senior vice-president of software engineering. “Well it turns out, these can be used to track you, whether you click on them or not. So this year, we’re shutting that down.”

There are several ways in which Apple is forcing other technology companies and app makers to respect user privacy. It designs software in a way that apps don't get too much access to the private data of users. And it requires the apps to specifically, explicitly ask for permissions, each time before they use a component like GPS. While this has been the case for several years, Apple is now coming up with some specific measures.

For example, at WWDC 2018, the company went after the tracking and surveillance of internet users by technology companies. "Safari (browser) works really hard to protect your privacy and this year it is working even harder," said Federighi, as he detailed how Mac users would be protected from the online tracking that websites like Facebook employ. In macOS Mojave, Safari browser will not only block third-party cookies but also block the plugins like "Share" and "Like" buttons that are used by Facebook to track users who do not even have Facebook IDs.

Good ol' fingerprinting

But a more significant measure that Apple announced was that the company was also making it difficult to track anonymous web users. To track internet users who are not logged in, companies like Facebook use a method called "fingerprinting".

Fingerprinting takes into account unique features of a computer such as the IP address, the hardware details, the plugins that have been installed, the older cookies stored in the computer hard disk, time of use, location, et al. Using these attributes, Facebook often identifies users with uncanny accuracy even when they are not logged into Facebook. Apple has said that its new Safari browser will ensure that such information is not passed on to websites.

The idea, Federighi said, was to "make all Mac devices look the same" to websites like Facebook. Then, on Tuesday, Apple quietly inserted a clause in its policies for app developers — one forbids apps from peeking into the contact books of iPhone users unnecessarily and from monetising this contact book.

In a way, yet again, the targets of Apple's new rules are companies like Facebook that love to scoop up details from people's address books.

These are significant privacy-enhancing measures, unlike some of the token stuff that Facebook, Google and others offer to web users. They have the potential to really curtail the ability of Facebook and Google to track web users.

Now why is it accurate to say that Apple's fight for user privacy is selfish? Its position against targeted advertising business model also allows it to take a swipe or two at competitors like Facebook, Google, Amazon and others. Apple makes money by selling products. The iPhone alone lets the company earn tens of billions of dollars in profit every year. Apple doesn't sell ads. In fact, it can turn good old privacy into a top feature for the iPhone and Mac. Advantage Apple!

In the grand scheme of things, this is indeed important because, primarily, it is the good fight.

Also read: Apple's promise of better security and other highlights from WWDC 2018


Javed Anwer Javed Anwer @brijwaasi

Tech editor at http://www.indiatoday.in . I review stuff. and occasionally write at http://www.dailyo.in . can speak intelese. usual disclaimers apply.

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