Apple is the company that, more than any other I can think of, has made privacy one of its core values. Apple CEO Tim Cook has stated more times than I can remember that the company believes "privacy is a fundamental human right." It has been a huge part of the company's marketing, and--until now--Apple has largely lived up to that reputation.
Especially in comparison with its tech brethren, many of whom take a different approach to managing user data and don't provide the same degree of protection with tools like encryption. There are plenty of reasons to criticize Apple, but privacy had never been one of them.
For example, many people rightly praised Apple's position when it resisted the FBI's efforts to gain access to the devices of suspected mass shooters or terrorists. It wasn't because those people were on the side of terrorists, but because if there's a backdoor into the device of a bad guy, there's a backdoor into everyone's device.
Now, a lot of people are upset with Apple's Child Safety Initiatives, specifically a feature that will detect known child sexual abuse material (CSAM) uploaded to iCloud Photos. Again, it's not that people are on the side of anyone who would possess or upload that type of content.
There are, however, concerns that the technology represented a major shift in Apple's stance on privacy. The fact that the technology runs on the device might make it more privacy-protective in reality, but that was not the perception at all.
It's the perceived shift that is the problem, and it's where things get complicated. It turns out that perception is everything when it comes to trust.
The irony is, for most people, what Apple introduced over the past few days will have no bearing on how you use your device. If you hadn't read this, or one of the hundred or so other articles on the subject, you would never even know anything was different unless you planned to store some amount of CSAM in iCloud Photos. I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt that you weren't, so practically speaking, none of this seemingly matters to you at all.
Except, it does matter because knowing what's happening on your device and with the services you use is important. The reason Facebook gets away with collecting so much information and monetizing it through personalized ads is that people don't really understand or think about the tradeoff they make when they use the free service. To that end, it's important to understand exactly what is happening.
Essentially, Apple has devised a way to detect this type of material without compromising user privacy. If you're uncomfortable with even the idea that Apple might be detecting any type of content on your device, you can simply turn off iCloud Photos and Apple has confirmed that none of the technology will run on your device.
One of the big problems for Apple is that expectations matter. Apple has set expectations for its customers that it operates differently than its competitors. This, however, felt different than what people expect from Apple. Even if Apple is confident that it is respecting user privacy, the technology raises a lot of questions on that front.
That's mostly because the rollout was pretty bad. The information was spread online before Apple had made any kind of announcement or briefed the press. It was made worse by the fact that Apple had a hard time explaining its position in a way that didn't look like it was playing games with the words it used. And, words have meaning. The problem is, they don't always have the same meaning to the people you're talking to.
If you're trying to make a point, it's your job to be sure that your audience understands the words as you mean them. If they don't, it's on you. In this case, all of the confusion created doubt for people that Apple remained committed to its position on protecting user privacy.
When you create expectations for people, and then it appears that you're doing something else, it breaks that trust. Trust is built over time. It's the result of delivering on your promises time and time again. It's terribly difficult to earn, and remarkably easy to lose. It doesn't take much, even what seems like a small shift can break the trust your brand has earned.
It honestly doesn't matter if the thing you're doing is consistent with the way you understand the promise you've made, if it's different than what people have come to expect, you've already lost the argument. You've lost trust.
Maybe it's not that complicated after all.