Out of control - The battle between Apple, Google and Facebook for our data has just begun
Facebook knows when you’re having your period. Google notes which porn sites you visit. Since government hasn’t acted, Apple is taking on the role of privacy advocate and declaring war on surveillance capitalism. What could possibly go wrong?
It started with a question. A simple yes/no question that shook Silicon Valley like an earthquake and wiped out billions from Wall Street in one fell swoop. A question that no one has wanted to ask its users and the answer to which the tech, media and advertising industries had for decades been afraid to ask. The question: Do you want to be tracked?
One year App Tracking Transparancy
It’s been exactly a year since Apple made good on its announcement and declared war on a multi-billion-dollar industry. With the introduction of the App Tracking Transparency (ATT) feature for iPhone and iPad introduced in May 2021, Apple has been giving its customers a choice when opening new apps: Do you allow this app to record you across the entire internet even when the app isn’t open?
Apple’s ATT feature struck like a bomb, shattering the foundation upon which the greatest internet pioneers built their empires. This tiny iOS code update jeopardized the business models of the biggest social media giants. An affront to Facebook, a challenge to Google, Apple extended a middle finger to its neighbors in Menlo Park and Mountain View.
Cook, Zuck and the Game of Phones
The reaction wasn’t long in coming: Facebook raised serious allegations against Apple in full-page advertisements, alleging the ATT feature would ruin small and medium-sized companies by depriving them of free data and therefore making it too expensive to run targeted ads. Apple countered by having CEO Tim Cook personally visit Washington and Brussels, where he presented himself as a selfless privacy champion and data protector.
It says a lot about the state of politics that Apple of all people, an industrial giant with its own agenda, is taking on the role of state regulator and doing what Washington and Brussels are obviously no longer capable of: putting a stop to the rampant snooping of an out-of-control surveillance industry that clandestinely harvests of its users’ sensitive personal information.
It’s obvious that Apple isn’t doing this out of pure charity. Unlike Google or Facebook, Apple’s iPhone group generates most of its profits not from data but through hardware sales. In this context, I would like to ask Tim Cook how he feels about data protection in China — not just a production site but a key market for iPhones. But that’s a topic for another blog post.
You are being watched while you watch porn
The concerns Apple raises are justified. Many apps such as weather forecasts, maps, and news aggregators as well as many other apps and social media services that we use every day are nothing more than Trojan horses. They secretly harvest our information, sending companies and data brokers our locations, search queries, even the addresses of the websites we visit from morning to night. In short: our personal habits and thoughts are for sale in exchange for a few free services.
An American PhD team examined 22,484 porn websites [PDF] and found that 93 percent of them use trackers. 74 percent of these websites sent user data to Google, and 10 percent of porn trackers came from Facebook. That’s right: Facebook, where bare skin in works of art is taboo and where pictures of breastfeeding mothers are removed faster than swastikas and calls for genocide.
Internal report: Facebook has lost control over our data
Since its inception Facebook has admitted to countless, sometimes devastating, data protection glitches. Hundreds of millions of data records have been compromised in the process. In April 2021, for example, Facebook confirmed that personal data from over 500 million Facebook users (including cell phone numbers and private email addresses) had been lost. Apparently, an overlooked security vulnerability in the software was to blame.
Meanwhile, Facebook employees are sounding the alarm that the company may have lost track how our information was even collected. In an internal report [PDF], the group’s advertising team compares its massive pool of data from its billions of users to a lake whose sources of water are unknown. If these claims turn out to be true, it would constitute a fundamental violation of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Asked about this leaked internal document, a Facebook/Meta spokesperson sent me the following prepared statement:
“Considering this document does not describe our extensive processes and controls to comply with privacy regulations, it’s simply inaccurate to conclude that it demonstrates non-compliance. New privacy regulations across the globe introduce different requirements and this document reflects the technical solutions we’re building to scale the current measures we have in place to manage data and meet our obligations.” A Meta Spokesperson
I know what you did last summer
One rationalization that consumers continue to make is: “I have nothing to hide”. But this misses the point. Even if we exhibit perfect judgment even in our youth, our online activity can be taken out of context and be used to damage our reputations professionally or privately. In addition, we could be held to different moral standards in 10 or 20 years.
For example, the right to abortion may be overturned in the US after being constitutionally protected for almost half a century. Women who have aborted a pregnancy could be charged in criminal court. Oklahoma just gave final approval for the nation’s strictest law that prohibits nearly all abortions starting at fertilization.
In Texas, there are 10,000 dollar bounties for tipsters and private individuals to sue abortion providers and anyone who aids or abets an abortion. If Facebook collects data from menstrual calendar apps, will this data be sold in order to find women and sentence them to jail time?
Data means power, and power corrupts. If we Germans have learned one thing from mass surveillance in our recent history, it’s that too much of that power in the hands of the wrong people rarely ends well. So, let’s call things for what they really are: Personal data is people. Protecting our data protects people.
If Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of a metaverse becomes reality, and we’re all just data commodities, ask yourself if you would trust this man with your data. Would you trust him with your life?
Stay hungry, stay foolish.