Apple and Google throw punches over privacy, technological advancement, and price tags. Their feud highlights the importance of privacy rights and the perception behind its role in AI and products.
The tradeoff between progress and privacy
Apple CEO Tim Cook recently dismissed the idea that technological advancement is synonymous with privacy loss. While not naming them directly, this comment is understood to have been a direct jab at Google and Facebook, who have come under much scrutiny due to the sheer mass of data they collect on customers. This has kicked off a debate over consumer data and big data’s responsibility to protect it.
Recently, Apple has made moves to position themselves as a privacy leader and defender, emphasizing that their revenue stream is not reliant on ads and branding the new iPhone with the tagline “what happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone”.
Tim Cook even went so far as to say that the belief that you have to understand everyone’s personal life to create great machine learning is a “false trade-off.” “There’s a lot of these false choices that are out there, embedded in people’s minds,” Cook said. “We try to systematically reject all of those and turn it on its head.” (Business Insider)
However, AI users everywhere were quick to point out that Apple’s lack of data collection is a hindrance to AI, noting the limited capabilities of Siri when compared to Alexa or Google Assistant.
This feud is not new, as in the past Google’s CEO had his own criticism to share about the company. As the saying goes, those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
Privacy as a luxury feature
Google CEO Sundar Pichai “hinted that Apple could only afford to respect users’ privacy because its products are so expensive.” With a $1379 (CAD) minimum price point for the newest iPhone, the iPhone 11 Pro, we cannot dismiss his point.
While we believe preserving privacy and advancing AI in conjunction is possible through anonymization, this debate brings up the larger concern of privacy price tags. Bankrate’s financial security index survey in 2018, showed that only 39% of Americans could cover a $1000 (USD) emergency with savings. That’s a negative sign if consumers can only be afforded privacy with a price point of over a grand.
Yet, rather than address privacy at a lower price, Pichai writes in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, “We feel privileged that billions of people trust [Google products] to help them every day.” Some feel that he was “waxing poetic about how privacy means many things to many people,”. If so, his claim negates the significance of privacy to users and exudes the notion that if users trust the company then privacy is unimportant.
Such an idea is 1984-esk, and is a worry expressed in a recent Amnesty International report that refers to Google’s business model as “surveillance-based.” It then goes on to state that “This isn’t the internet people signed up for.”
We feel Federighi, Apple senior senior vice president of Software Engineering addresses the trust vs. privacy notion well: “Fundamentally, we view the centralization of personalized information as a threat, whether it’s in Apple’s hands or anyone else’s hands,” In saying this, Apple is not exactly the prime example of privacy.
iPhone 11 Pro is sharing your location data even when you say no
Despite the fact that the iPhone 11 Pro has been advertised, seemingly, to be the most privacy-focussed smartphone on the market, Brian Krebs, a security researcher, has found a significant privacy flaw. He discovered that the phone “pings its GPS module to gather location data, even if the user has set their phone not to do so.”
This could mean that Apple is geo-tagging locations of cell towers and Wi-Fi hotspots periodically, even after users have opted-out of sharing their location data. Krebs said, “Apparently there are some system services on this model (and possibly other iPhone 11 models) which request location data and cannot be disabled by users without completely turning off location services, as the arrow icon still appears periodically even after individually disabling all system services that use location.” (Forbes)
He suspects that this may be a hardware issue connected with supporting Wi-Fi 6, and emphasizes that the only way to avoid this issue is to disable your phone’s location services completely in settings. This will limit the phone’s capabilities tremendously (Say goodbye to Maps).
This revelation comes shortly after the discovery that iOS13 was designed to offer users control over what companies can access data, but not necessarily for their own apps.
While Apple may be leading the industry in terms of privacy, its model is not bulletproof. What’s more, with such a steep price tag, there are concerns over privacy discrimination. At the end of the day, privacy is important to everyone, and must be available at every price point, whether or not the business is trustworthy.