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Once bitten: Comparing Apple and Facebook’s privacy policies

June 14, 2018 | By Ron Miller—Independent Technology Journalist @ron_miller

These days, it’s hard to trust any tech company with your personal data. Between hacking, leaks, misuse, and unfettered tracking, you can’t blame consumers for being more than a little wary. Sure, companies use our information for lots of reasons. However, when you compare two tech giants – Facebook and Apple – there are distinct differences in their approaches to collecting and using personal information. And the distinction says a lot about building a business model based on devouring data.

Their diverging approaches could be written off to business model differences. Facebook sells access to a massive data set to serve up ads to granular groups of people that meet advertising objectives. Apple’s goal is to sell hardware and use data to customize your experience. While plenty of people don’t trust either company, it is interesting and illuminating to contrast the two systems.

Right on Cue

Eddie Cue set out to do just that when he was interviewed by Dylan Byers on stage at South by Southwest in March. He sees a big difference between how his company approaches privacy and those from other companies like Facebook and Google because of what he sees as the fundamental difference in how they make money.

“We’re not collecting a ton of information about you, where you are, what you do, etc.. We are really not interested in it in most cases. When we do, we keep the minimal amount that we need in order to do exactly what we tell you we are going to do with it. We don’t make our money off of advertising,” Cue said in March.

Message Delivered

In a Fortune commentary from Alex Salkever that came out after news surfaced that Facebook had been scraping call and text history from users on Android phones, Salkever saw clear differences. And this was just one of many data privacy issues Facebook has faced this year. Salkever wrote:

Apple emphasized user privacy long before its rivals did. The company built end-to-end encryption into iMessage and FaceTime from their inception. Apple also makes it exceptionally easy to encrypt your entire hard drive; in fact, this is a core feature of the Mac laptop operating system. And Apple Pay is designed in way that really enhances privacy—by not storing actual credit card information on users’ phones or computers and instead using one-way encryption for payments.

Ben Goodman, vice president of Global strategy at identity management firm, ForgeRock sees Facebook as more like television network than a hardware company. He believes that this accounts for the differences in the way they approach privacy.

Getting Personal

“There is a misconception that Facebook is selling our personal data. In reality, Facebook is collecting data to enable high levels of personalization and targeting in advertising. When you view their data privacy through those lenses, it is easy to understand why Apple prioritizes privacy by not having personal information leaving the device; meanwhile, Facebook wants users to be comfortable with sharing as much personal data as possible,” Goodman said.

When Apple has run into problems it’s mostly when there is information being stored off-device as in the infamous iCloud celebrity hacks.

Certainly Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged in his prepared statement before the U.S. Congress earlier this year that his company needed to be more careful with user data on the platform. ‘But it’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well. That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy,” he told Congress in April.

Privacy Please

That’s not to say that Apple doesn’t get questioned about its approach to privacy even as it tells people how much better it is. Cue’s boss Tim Cook was more than happy to dance on Facebooks misfortune when its privacy woes surfaced earlier this year. Cook said that what differentiated them from the others (besides what Cue had articulated at SxSW) was encryption, not allowing sensitive data to leave the device, and collecting less information than everyone else.

But when Apple released the iPhone X last year and with it brought 3D face recognition to the device, it did raise privacy concerns, especially since that was being shared with some third-party apps on-device. (How do you think you can make that personalized animated poop emoji?)

Then, at the most recent WWDC keynote, Apple introduced in-browser Safari tools to block Facebook tracking. Apple software executive Craig Federighi pointed out that Facebook Like buttons and comment fields on a web page can be used to track you whether you click on them or not. Starting in the next version of Safari, you can choose whether you want to allow that or not from a warning box that pops up whenever these entities are on a page you are viewing.

Just this week, the company updated its App Store guidelines in a move a Bloomberg report suggests could be directed at a Facebook book app called Onavo Protect. “The iPhone maker’s updated App Store Review Guidelines ban applications that “collect information about which other apps are installed on a user’s device for the purposes of analytics or advertising/ marketing.” This could give Apple grounds to remove the Onavo app, although the software is still available despite the rules kicking in last week,” according to the Bloomberg report.

Governing Privacy

Of course, GDPR is forcing everyone’s hand to at least some extent as the EU implements a new set of regulations designed to put the user in control of his or her own data. Other countries including the U.S. might not be far behind.

As Cue pointed out, attitudes have shifted about privacy, but Apple feels it was ahead of the curve. “If you look over the last 10 years, when we started talking about privacy and security and all these things, they weren’t top of mind, and in a way most people were [thinking] ‘Who cares?’ It wasn’t that important, but now people realize the importance of it and what the ramifications of it are,” he said.

And as consumers see how some companies have been misusing their data, they are beginning to compare the privacy records of the biggest tech players. And perhaps they are seeing that while none has a perfect record, they may not all be equally bad either. As consumers decide who to trust, who to do business with, and who to block, companies will need to do more than comply with regulation. They’ll need to develop a strategic approach to data, and business, that respects consumers’ privacy expectations.

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