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Apple used WWDC to highlight what Google still gets wrong about privacy


Last month, at its annual developer conference I/O, Google outlined its plans to preserve user privacy in a smart, connected future. In light of increased scrutiny and controversies of late, the company emphasised the addition of more controls to its apps and how it’s minimising the amount of personal data you have to compromise.

But while Google has shown promise with these initiatives, it still gets a lot wrong about privacy. Most of the tools it advertises for users who’d like to opt out of Google’s aggressive data hoarding algorithms are buried deep inside menus. If you’re someone who doesn’t actively follow the tech world, chances are you most likely won’t ever discover them. And that was even more apparent during the Apple WWDC keynote.

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, California. Reuters

Private and Secure … By Default

Like every year, Apple’s executives walked the audience through a deluge of new software updates and features it’s planning to roll out later this year. But the one theme which remained common throughout the two-hour-long presentation was Apple’s proactive approach to user privacy. Instead of expecting you to know, as well as, understand a complicated set of settings, Apple’s products are designed to prompt you with opt-out options themselves before you’re about to give up your data.

Craig Federighi, Apple’s VP for Software Engineering, didn’t hold back either to accentuate its competitor’s oversights and took a jab at Google Maps’ recently announced incognito mode.

“What’s most important is that Maps is designed to be private and secure. We always protect your identity and activity. There’s no need to flip a switch to ask Maps to start respecting your privacy. Because at Apple, we believe privacy is a fundamental human right and we engineer it into everything we do.”, Federighi said on stage while discussing Apple Maps.

The message was placed front and center in the rest of the demos as well. Apple explicitly mentioned it doesn’t record or save your audio if you enable Apple Watch’s latest feature that tells you whether your surrounding is loud enough to cause hearing damage. In addition, the statement — “You control your data” was put up each time a presenter talked about abilities that relied on your private information.

Signing Out Of Abusive Tracking Practices

What’s more, Apple introduced its own quick sign-in API and highlighted how the ones from Google and Facebook let third-party apps easily track you online. Called Sign In With Apple, it allows you to log in to apps with your Apple account. The difference is, however, that Apple fends off all known tracking mechanisms advertisers covertly employ. It’s one less tidbit about yourself you’ll be feeding to Google and Facebook’s advertising network.

Whenever you log in with these buttons, third parties can correlate your interests through the email address and try to influence your decisions online. This also gives Google and Facebook’s algorithms access to your activities inside the apps despite having no direct presence. Since Apple doesn’t have an advertising network, it has no business benefiting from such data. On its websites, it specifically mentions “Apple does not use Sign In with Apple to profile users or their activity in apps.”

On top of that, with ‘Sign-In with Apple, you can choose to hide your email. In case the app requires your address, Apple enables you to instantly create a unique disposable ID which automatically forwards messages to your permanent inbox. When you no longer want to hear from that service, you can simply turn off that particular burner email address.

Apple is also updating its smart home toolkit, Homekit to ensure a more secure environment for your data and appliances. For instance, Homekit-enabled security cameras can now analyze footage locally on your devices to send alerts. Google’s Nest devices, in comparison, do collect facial recognition data to process them online. Whereas the only piece of information Apple is beaming to its own servers are the recordings which are end-to-end encrypted. That essentially means even Apple can’t view them if they wanted to.

Rick Osterloh, the head of Google’s hardware division at I/O 2019. Image: tech2

Routers can now be built with Homekit too and here, Apple’s software can automatically firewall each of your accessories. Therefore, even in the event of a breach, the intruder won’t be able to bring your entire network down or tap into all of your personal information. Google WiFi does establish a firewall between your network and the internet but it’s not capable of isolating each connected appliance separately. It’s certainly not a unique concept, though and has been brought to the market before by a few security-focused routers such as Symantec’s Norton Core.

At I/O 2019, Google successfully conveyed user privacy is not an afterthought for its services anymore. Especially by implementing concepts such as Federated Learning, it has taken a significant step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the majority of the security tools it offers still depend a lot on the user and assume they’ll know how to reach them.

Whether that’s a deliberate design choice or a work in progress, we don’t know. But we can tell is that Google has a long way to go and Apple’s efforts in the field can attest to that. Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, in an editorial, said that privacy doesn’t have to be a “luxury good” and indirectly called out Apple. But does that mean Google is allowed to act a bit naive about the reality? We don’t believe so. The silver lining for you is that thanks to the raised awareness on user privacy, companies are actively addressing the security holes in their offerings and updating them to be more private by default. Therefore, maybe there is a chance of a future where you don’t have to settle for a less secure platform for better features.

The author is a freelance technology journalist from Ahmedabad. He tweets from @phonesoldier.

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