Apple is Delivering the Goods When it Comes to Privacy

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Apple has been doing a lot of talking about privacy over the last three years and it just keeps ramping up. It seemed to fall largely on deaf ears at first, but that has changed dramatically. The narrative on privacy has shifted due to a deluge of stories about large-scale hacks, user data abuse and lax online security. Where people once trusted the online services they are using and didn’t make their personal digital privacy a high priority, that has all changed fairly quickly.

I have never felt like Apple wasn’t delivering on what they were selling in terms of making privacy a priority in iOS. However, I have contended for a long time that this is more of a position of convenience for the company, rather than a moral crusade. Their core business doesn’t depend on the collection and usage or sale of user data, so they have the luxury of being against those things without any sacrifice on their part. Their stance on privacy also happens to be a handy weapon to use against most of their Silicon Valley contemporaries, as many of them DO depend on user data. Boiled down to a phrase, privacy has been fairly easy for Apple to deliver so far.

Well, maybe Apple is shifting from privacy being an easy differentiator to really turning it into a mission-critical focus. Maybe they see the tide turning in their favor and have decided to start getting more aggressive. Whatever the reasons, Apple is starting to push into new territory concerning data privacy and they revealed two products at WWDC that demonstrate this. The first is Sign in With Apple.

Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs…

This is another feature that really didn’t come up in the rumor mill before WWDC, but has generated quite a bit of buzz since. Very positive buzz, in fact. Apple is stepping on some toes here, as Facebook and Google have had universal login largely to themselves across the web. Apple offering an alternative that is privacy-focused is bad news for them if Sign in With Apple is widely adopted.

This new service really is all about the user. One of the really cool features demoed on stage was the ability to have a obscured forwarding email address given to any site asking for one, rather than your personal email address.

It’s such a smart feature that will allow people to more easily control the access that companies have to them and their data and accounts. Add to this the fact that you automatically get to sign in directly using TouchID or Face ID (depending on your device) and you have a service that’s both convenient and private.

The question is how widely will Sign in With Apple be adopted. Well, Apple built-in a little advantage there. Every iOS app that currently offers Facebook or Google login must offer Sign in With Apple as an alternative. This should help to spur adoption right out of the gate. As for the wider world of the web, if the initial positive reaction after WWDC is any indication, it may be able to get some immediate traction. No site wants to be lumped in with the likes of Facebook when it comes to how they use personal data, so there is an incentive to adopt Sign in With Apple if people are making that association between Apple and privacy. It really is a smart and savvy move on Apple’s part.

You’re on camera in three, two, one…

The second big privacy reveal at Apple’s WWDC Keynote was HomeKit Secure Video.

Here is another area where Apple is stepping on some established toes. In the case of the home automation market, this would be Amazon and Google, as this pair currently dominates the landscape. Although Apple came out with HomeKit before Amazon’s Alexa and Echo or Google’s Assistant and Home were anywhere close to release, as with Siri, they bungled getting to market early. While there was some positive buzz after CES this year, as Apple has made it cheaper and easier for companies to build HomeKit into more of their home automation devices, they are still pretty far behind.

Here’s the thing. Home automation and IoT are NOT known for data security and privacy. In fact, its quite the opposite. These devices are well known for being insecure and difficult, if not impossible to patch or update. And that’s just the gear. Then you have the issue of devices with camera, mics and motion detectors all over your home that are tied back to Google and Amazon. Facebook may play faster and looser with your data, but make no mistake, Google is using everything they learn to sell you to ad companies, while Amazon is taking all they glean to sell to you.

Apple has talked about this distinction with HomeKit before, but I don’t think it ever really resonated. However, they picked the perfect spot to squeeze on Monday and they definitely got a lot of positive attention for it.

Plenty of people in the tech press and on various blog and podcasts have talked about the “creepy factor” of allowing Amazon and Google connected cameras in your home. I have never been comfortable enough with either of them to add any, myself. I know other who have, but only because they didn’t feel like there were viable alternatives.

On Monday, Apple did a great job of rolling out a nice package to handle secure video as part of HomeKit. They didn’t just talk about privacy in vague terms. They created a full end-to-end video solution that handles home security video in a secure and private way and explicitly described that on stage. And the tech press ate it up.

HomeKit Secure Video looks like a great solution, based on the description. All of the video is analyzed locally before being sent to the cloud.  You do have to have an Apple TV, iPad or HomePod in your home to be the local “hub” of the system, but if you are an Apple user getting into home automation, you likely have one or more of these already, so I don’t see that as detrimental. After analysis, the video is then encrypted before it’s sent to the cloud, keeping your most private place, your home, more private and secure.

It was also really smart on Apple’s part to head off any discussion of gouging users when it comes to paying for data storage, as you automatically get 10 days of storage that doesn’t go against your current iCloud data allotment. They have gotten a lot of flak over the years for only giving users a small amount of iCloud storage for free, so it was a good move to just take that off the table from the outset. From top to bottom, this whole segment was a big win for Apple.

Craig Federighi told us that Netatmo, Logitech and Eufy will support HomeKit Secure Video out of the gate. It will likely be a small start, but if this proves to be a popular alternative for Apple users who are privacy-focused, more companies will join up with more of their cameras. I know one thing. I would be willing to put this in my house.

Sign in With Apple and HomeKit Secure Video show Apple putting its time and money where its mouth is when it comes to privacy. These aren’t just bolt-ons to iOS, but new features in other areas that fill legitimate gaps and needs for users who want more private and secure alternatives. I have poked at Apple’s real motives for their stance on user data privacy before, but whether it is a position of convenience or truly a crusade, they are delivering the goods. I don’t think anyone can deny that after WWDC.

I was paying special attention to the Keynote for any responses to or digs at Google’s Sundar Pichai for his self-serving op-ed in the New York Times that poked at Apple for making privacy a “luxury good.” I found it in Craig Federighi’s subtle statement about new location privacy features in Apple Maps.

“We always protect your identity and activity. And there’s no need to flip a switch to ask Maps to start respecting your privacy…”

That’s a pretty clear and pointed response in my book.  However, I think Google, Amazon and Facebook will be more concerned with Apple’s actions with these two new features that are aimed squarely at them.

 


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