Apple and Google, at least on the surface, appear to have a lot in common. Both are giant tech companies full of very smart people building some very innovative products. Some of those products even overlap. They both make smartphones and the operating systems that power them, and both make billions of dollars selling those products and services to businesses and consumers.
Despite those similarities, the way the two companies view their relationship with their customers couldn't be more different. And that difference couldn't have been more clear than it was on Monday, when Apple took several not-so-veiled swipes at Google over privacy during its WWDC keynote.
Google responded with a blog post from the company's CEO, Sundar Pichai, who wrote:
Privacy is at the heart of everything we do....As we design our products, we focus on three important principles: keeping your information safe, treating it responsibly, and putting you in control. Today, we are announcing privacy improvements to help do that, including changes to our data retention practices across our core products to keep less data by default.
We'll talk about the "privacy improvements" in a moment, but first, I think it's worth unpacking that first statement. What exactly does Google think it means that "privacy is at the heart of everything we do?" The answer to that question is important because I'm not sure it means the same thing to Google as it should to you.
Google seems to think that users are mostly concerned about making sure other companies or hackers don't gain access to your personal information. That may be true, but Google seems to ignore the fact that its entire business model is based on collecting and monetizing the data of its users.
That's the polar opposite approach from Apple, which has made privacy one of the core values of its brand and has actually built it into its products and services. For example, consider how Apple handles location information. Apple says it uses literally the least amount of location information needed to provide a particular service.
So, if you're checking the weather, it really only needs to know generally where you're located since the weather doesn't change block by block. (Except, of course, here in Michigan, but that's not the point).
If you're getting directions, on the other hand, Apple Maps needs to know more precisely where you're located. Still, Apple never stores that information, and actually handles your location data on the device itself. Apple's stated principle is to use data minimization, or use the very least amount of data needed to perform a task, and not to store that data for the purposes of showing you advertisements.
Google, on the other hand, takes a different approach. Google literally stores exactly where you are, where you have been, and even the route you took. And, it saves that data. Sure, you could go in and delete the information Google has stored, if you happened to know how or where it was located. In reality, very few people did that.
Now, to be fair, Google has made a few steps towards giving users control over how their data is used. For example, last year the company made it possible to set your data to automatically be deleted after either three or 18 months. With this latest blog post, Google now says it will automatically delete your location history after 18 months, and your web activity after 18 months, even without you having to opt-in. It will also delete your YouTube viewing activity every 36 months.
On its face, this sounds like a reasonable move by the search giant to better protect your privacy. Except, why exactly is Google storing your location history for 18 months, or your YouTube watching habits for three years?
Well, according to Google, the company is "guided by the principle that products should keep information only for as long as it's useful to you." Sounds really helpful right? Except, there's a very big devil in that very tiny detail of "useful to you." And it's very different than Apple's philosophy of using only the minimal amount of data to complete a task.
You don't have to read much further in that blog post to find out Google keeps your history so that, for example, "YouTube can continue to make relevant entertainment recommendations based on what you've watched or listened to in the past."
In reality, Google wants your data because it uses it to keep you engaged on its platform. The more Google knows, the more relevant the YouTube videos it can suggest. The more engaged you are, the more opportunities it has to show you ads. That makes sense--Google is the world's largest advertising platform.
That's just a helpful reminder whenever the company starts talking about your privacy. I'm in favor of any step in the right direction, but never forget that Google's definition of protecting your privacy still hasn't changed, and it might not mean what you think it means.