At CES 2020, Facebook and Apple made it clear that they have very different views about privacy. The biggest difference might be in whether each company first acknowledged that there's an issue to begin with. 

On a panel that included Apple's senior director of global privacy, Jane Horvath, and Facebook's VP of public policy, Erin Egan, it became clear that we're nowhere near solving the privacy problem. That's largely because the companies and stakeholders can't even agree what the problem is. 

For example, Apple doesn't collect user data for the purpose of monetization, instead making money by selling products and services. As a result, it has less need to track your preferences and activity since it doesn't serve targeted ads. Facebook, on the other hand, does. Those competing interests led to several interesting exchanges during the hourlong panel that also included Susan Shook from P&G and Rebecca Slaughter from the Federal Trade Commission. 

Privacy Built In

It's no secret that Apple makes a point that it focuses on protecting user privacy as one of its fundamental values. In fact, Horvath talked about her team members as "someone the engineers want in the room," making the point that as products are designed, user privacy is at the forefront. 

Egan mentioned several times that Facebook believes in "privacy by design," but that's tough to reconcile with the fact that the company literally exists as an advertising platform that monetizes your information and the fact that I can't even count how many articles I've written on Facebook breaches.


On the matter of making it clear to users how companies use their data, Egan says that Facebook only uses "the functional data that we collectively need to serve people. We give people control and choice over that data. And we're clear with people about it." To that end, she pointed out the company's recent update to its Privacy Checkup tool. That's great, except it didn't actually change anything about Facebook's business model, which is still to collect as much information as possible so it can serve you targeted ads.

And, if you asked the average user, chances are they have no idea what information is collected, or how it's used, a point raised later by Commissioner Slaughter.

Responsibility for Protecting Data

At one point, moderator Rajeev Chand from Wing Venture Capital asked Egan whether privacy is protected on Facebook. Her answer? "Yes, on Facebook, privacy is protected today." I feel like the 1.2 billion users who have had their information scraped from Facebook or Instagram might feel different. I feel like people whose privacy was compromised in the Cambridge Analytica scandal--for which Facebook paid a record $5 billion fine--might feel different. 

Is Privacy Solvable?

Chand also asked the real question: "Is privacy solvable?" Apple's Horvath suggested that besides the technological solutions, perhaps it is time for a national privacy law--if for no other reason that to create a clear set of guidelines for companies and users to follow. Clearly Apple believes there is more to do to protect user privacy and personal information and is willing to lead.

Facebook apparently believes it's already doing that in a way that Egan says "adds value to users in a privacy-protective way." To which the people standing around me actually laughed. Honestly, I did too a little. 

I'm not entirely sure what that means, but it illustrates the clear difference in how these companies view the solution. Facebook seems to believe that the value it provides "for free" justifies the incursion on your privacy. 

It's hard to solve a problem that you can't even admit is actually--you know--a problem.