Apple CEO Tim Cook took aim at the tech industry's privacy practices. In an interview yesterday with Vice News, he said, "The narrative that some companies will try to get you to believe is, 'I've got to take all your data to make my service better.' Well, don't believe that. Whoever's telling you that, it's a bunch of bunk."

 

Strong words, and a thinly veiled reference to such companies as Google and Facebook. When companies don't directly charge for their services, they'll make their money other ways. Have to. No business runs on good wishes.

But the depths of prying have increased, with a regular stream of new things companies do to track users and turn their data into something advertisers will pay for.

All that said, Apple has cultivated and established a reputation for concern over privacy. There's a privacy webpage that lists the steps the company takes to safeguard user information and what it refrains from doing.

And then there's the legal privacy policy page that lists the things Apple can and does do with your information. Reading it is enlightening.

The page, updated May 22, 2018, "covers how we collect, use, disclose, transfer, and store your personal information." The details are important.

The main one is the first definition: "Personal information is data that can be used to identify or contact a single person." Is information about a person, such as activities on a website, personal in the sense of being able to identify an individual? No, but it is associated with personal information to become useful.

As the website states early on:

You may be asked to provide your personal information anytime you are in contact with Apple or an Apple affiliated company. Apple and its affiliates may share this personal information with each other and use it consistent with this Privacy Policy. They may also combine it with other information to provide and improve our products, services, content, and advertising. You are not required to provide the personal information that we have requested, but, if you chose not to do so, in many cases we will not be able to provide you with our products or services or respond to any queries you may have.

Note that Google reportedly pays Apple $9 billion a year Google reportedly pays Apple $9 billion a year to remain Safari's default search engine. At the very least, there is a financial incentive for Apple to allow Google access to all the search information. And note that personal information can be combined with other information for a variety of purposes, including to "improve our products, services, content, and advertising."

By the way, that last point appears in the section "What personal information we collect" and not "How we use your personal information." Don't assume that everything is where you'd expect, just as if you were reading a business contract. One section can modify another.

Here is a partial list of "non-personal information" that Apple collects:

  • Occupation, language, ZIP code, area code, unique device identifier, the URL where your browser was previously, your location and time zone when you used the Apple product "so that we can better understand customer behavior and improve our products, services, and advertising."
  • Apple can "collect and store details of how you use our services, including search queries." Storing search queries is one of the more powerful forms of data that Google collects. The information doesn't include IP address, but other information, such as name and device ID, more than makes up for that.
  • Unless you explicitly enable "Limit Ad Tracking" on a device, Apple provides targeted ads based on the information it has collected, which sounds like other notable tech companies.
  • Here's the data stored in log files: "Internet protocol (IP) addresses, browser type and language, internet service provider (ISP), referring and exit websites and applications, operating system, date/time stamp, and clickstream data." Clickstream data is the chain of links you use to get to a given website, thus a set of metadata that can help indicate interests and activities. As Apple notes, "We use this information to understand and analyze trends, to administer the site, to learn about user behavior on the site, to improve our products and services, and to gather demographic information about our user base as a whole. Apple may use this information in our marketing and advertising services."
  • Apple and its partners "may collect, use, and share precise location data, including the real-time geographic location of your Apple computer or device." They can use data from GPS, Bluetooth, your IP address, crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hot spot and cell tower locations, and other technologies to determine approximate location. "Unless you provide consent, this location data is collected anonymously in a form that does not personally identify you and is used by Apple and our partners and licensees to provide and improve location-based products and services." But maybe you have provided consent at some point and forgotten.

You can have access to your personal data online. But then, you also can with Google and Facebook.

Perhaps Apple is more concerned with privacy than other companies. Certainly, there's been no news of a Facebook-style fiasco. Don't necessarily assume that means you get real privacy. That largely doesn't exist in the successful tech world, not when there is so much money to be made from knowledge about individuals.

Published on: Oct 3, 2018