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28 May, 2019 01:22

'Luxury good' or no privacy at all? Apple & Google duke it out over customers' data

'Luxury good' or no privacy at all? Apple & Google duke it out over customers' data

An Apple exec is defending the high cost of privacy after a passive-aggressive jab from Google over turning what was once a fundamental civil right into a 'luxury good' – but look who's talking. Pot, meet kettle. Who's blacker?

"We have no interest in learning all about you as a company," Apple vice president of software engineering Craig Federighi boasted to the Independent, adding that he "doesn't buy into" the criticism leveled against the company by Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who hinted that Apple could only afford to respect users' privacy because its products are so expensive.

"Privacy cannot be a luxury good offered only to people who can afford to buy premium products and services," Pichai wrote in a New York Times op-ed earlier this month that stopped just short of naming Apple as the target of his scorn. The Google chief argued that slurping up "a small subset of" customers' data is necessary for the company to offer its products for free or cheap.

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Pichai's promise that "Google will never sell any personal information to third parties," when the company is being investigated for GDPR violations in the EU over the creepily intimate behavioral categorizations it tags users' traffic with in order to market them to third parties on its ad exchange platform, is disingenuous if not blatantly false, as is the idea that Google lets its customers decide how their information is used. Most Gmail users, for example, had no idea the content of their emails was being analyzed to serve them ads, and while Pichai could argue that they should have known there's no such thing as a free lunch – or a free email platform – the lack of an easily-accessible opt-out option means the "decision" boils down to whether or not to use Google at all. For the company that has come to embody Big Data to claim it's "working hard to challenge the assumption that products need more data to be more helpful" beggars belief.

But Pichai's criticism of Apple has merit. The latest iPhone model – advertised with the tagline "what happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone" – retails for at least $999 at a time when nearly two thirds of Americans don't even have that much in savings, let alone disposable income. One could buy an older or used iPhone and forego the social status boost that comes with a shiny new device, while Federighi addressed the criticism with platitudes like: "We think a great product experience is something everyone should have."

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What are Apple's customers paying for? In the oft-cited case of the San Bernadino shooters, in which Apple CEO Tim Cook heroically refused to unlock the suspect's iPhone for the FBI, the feds ultimately used an Israeli spyware program to access the phone anyway. Earlier this year, it was discovered that Apple's FaceTime could be used to eavesdrop on users even if they didn't answer a call. Apple also signed on to the NSA's PRISM program - three years later than Google, but a willing partner nonetheless. 

"We feel privileged that billions of people trust [Google products] to help them every day," Pichai writes, waxing poetic about how privacy means many things to many people, it's an "important topic," and billions of people trust Google with their most private thoughts.

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But Federighi's approach is more pragmatic. "Fundamentally, we view the centralization of personalized information as a threat, whether it's in Apple's hands or anyone else's hands," he said, claiming that Apple is relying more on localized computing and "differential privacy."

Helen Buyniski

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