Of Profits and Privacy

Just some thoughts following I/O.

So there's a terrific read over at MacWorld:

Google can’t stop scanning user email, since targeted advertising is its core business.

Facebook won’t encrypt messages end-to-end for the very same reason.

Microsoft can’t restrict enterprise administrators from controlling phones and computers, since enterprise manageability is core to its primary customer base ...

Android ... can’t dictate hardware design, and thus can’t consistently secure customer data on the device.

Essentially, Apple uses the difference in its business model to attack competitors on privacy.

Disregarding the terrifying fact that privacy can now be considered a selling point, I don't see much to disagree with here, but plenty to consider.

Nobody can speak accurately about Apple's motivations for working so hard to protect user information, anonymizing and sandboxing to such a meticulous extent (comparatively), but this all may be pleasantly Machiavellian since it's simply a huge win for users in this, our post-Snowden world.

For Google, Facebook, and in a sense Microsoft ¹, privacy is inherently bad for business; in the case of the first two companies, the more user data they have access to, the more personalized, thus lucrative, their ad services become.

Notably, Android is the only platform technically limited since it cannot mandate something like a fingerprint sensor on every Android device. But there's nothing stopping Google from launching its Android Silver lineup with privacy-minded features, right?

Here's where it gets tricky for Android:

  • Google believes that the more it knows about you, the more it can do for you. That's sometimes good, and leads to fun things like Google Now and other "predictive" features which tend to work with data pulled from emails, texts, etc. — but it's sometimes dubious, because...
  • The Play Store plays fast and loose with user information. Apps can request access to lots more information than what is needed to function (such access; much creep) and the only way to have complete control over your privacy is to just not install the app, which is not a solution. Otherwise, there's currently no quick and painless method to blanket opt-out of app install requirements.

If Google intends to compete with Apple in privacy, it has to become a company that doesn't rely on a lack of privacy.

But to reign in app developers who ask for way too much information would seem to violate its decidedly hands-off, open garden approach. And even if Google did fix some of those Play Store privacy issues, the OS itself would probably still prefer to have as much access to your data as ever (Google too, obviously) and this is where Apple is at its most dedicatedly beautiful:

Vendors (including Apple itself) must ask for permission before collecting that data, or letting anyone else collect it. Both iOS and OS X ask before sending data to Apple, and now include granular controls on what applications can see what data, all at the user’s control.

Whether this privacy push is being done to sell more devices or out of a genuine desire to Do No Evil, I sincerely hope more companies follow suit.

¹ Ads aren't the case with Microsoft in enterprise, but access to and control over user data is required for the product to function.