Apple makes big claims on data privacy: But is what’s good for the goose good for the gander?

Every year on January 28, public interest organizations, educational institutions, and other entities around the world celebrate International Data Privacy Day. For most private companies, the day is an opportunity to emphasize their data privacy strengths, announce new initiatives, and look forward to the future. But this year, Apple went a step further, publishing a plain-spoken user guide to data privacy, calling for the creation of international data standards and reforms, and taking aim at data failures across the tech industry.

The centerpiece of Apple’s Data Privacy Day announcements was its publication of A Day in the Life of Your Data, a guide intended to inform Apple customers about how they generate data, how that data is captured, and how it is sold to advertisers and other companies. Through the example of a father merely taking his daughter to the park and to buy ice cream, Apple discussed how location data tracking, targeted multi-platform advertising, photo harvesting, and information about credit card spending can be used to create a comprehensive user profile—showing where someone lives and travels, who they know, their income bracket, etc.—that can then be packaged and sold with either no (or passive) consent.

Along with the guide, Apple announced new changes to its app store, mandating that any app listed on the store ask for user permission before tracking data across apps or websites owned by other companies. Apple also publicized changes to how apps are listed on the store, including the creation of a “privacy nutrition label”—a standardized guide that shows how each listed app engages in data collection, data sharing, and operation of its own privacy practices. Apple also advertised how users of Apple products can exercise greater control over their data by utilizing proprietary data features, including the ability to disable third-party data tracking.

Many see these announcements as not just good PR for Apple; they are a new front in a larger conflict with Facebook over the future of data usage. By giving users the ability to limit third-party data tracking, Apple directly threatens the main moneymaker for Facebook’s operations—the sale of micro-targeted advertising based on data collected from the 2.8 billion users Facebook serves each month. Press reports state that Facebook may be considering an anti-trust suit against Apple, whose dominance in the device and application sales market dwarfs all other competitors, and whose data privacy practices are sure to influence the industry at large.

The conflict between Apple and Facebook is, in many ways, two sides of the same coin. Apple’s new security features, while admirable on paper, will likely only decrease the sale of sensitive user data to third-parties from Apple devices; from all indications, Apple plans to continue to gather such information for itself. And this seems to be where the rubber meets the road in the conflict between Apple, Facebook, and other tech companies; Apple holds itself out as a paragon of privacy virtue—and can rely on its formidable device and hardware sales for financial might—whereas Facebook, who relies on data sales to survive, believes that Apple just wants to dominate the user data market for itself. In a struggle for data control between the world’s largest corporate Goliath and nearly everyone else in the tech sector, it will be interesting to see who ends up on top in this dispute. Stay tuned.

Tags: Data Privacy