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Forget the new iPhones: Apple’s best product is now privacy

Under Tim Cook’s leadership, Apple saw just how critical an issue user privacy would become. Now it’s at least as important a feature as shiny industrial design or a nice camera.

Forget the new iPhones: Apple’s best product is now privacy
Apple CEO Tim Cook waves to the audience during Apple’s iPhone event on September 12, 2018. [Photo: Noah Berger / AFP]

When my friends come to me asking which smartphone or laptop they should buy, I almost always recommend an Apple product–the latest iPhone or MacBook. I recommend these products not just because they are Apple’s best, but because as someone who covers technology for a living, I believe that for most people, Apple offers better products and solutions than its competitors.

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Yes, Apple’s products are more expensive than many, “but you get what you pay for,” I frequently explain. In the case of iPhones, they generally have the fastest smartphone processors on the market, sport arguably the best industrial design, and have the most refined and stable operating system. I attribute similar qualities to Apple’s MacBooks, although my recommendation for those also include the line, “you’ll pay a little more up front, but they’ll last you twice as long as a PC laptop.”

Of course, this week Apple introduced its newest iPhones, the iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR. Once again, journalists, analysts, and armchair Apple pundits have taken to social media to state that the new iPhones are Apple’s best products ever.

Yet I no longer think this is a true statement. I now believe the best product Apple offers is intangible, yet far more valuable than a flagship smartphone. The best product Apple has–and the single biggest reason that consumers should choose an Apple device over competing devices–is privacy.

In 2018, no issue is more important than user privacy–or the lack of it. We’re tracked by private industry on an unprecedented scale, with major corporations having so much data about us–much of it gleaned without our knowledge–that they can tell when a teenager is pregnant (and inform the teen’s father) or even predict your future actions based on decisions you haven’t made yet. If you want to be part of this world, designed by advertisers and tech giants, you must relinquish your right to privacy. In other words, we live in a commercial surveillance state.

Well, unless you use Apple’s products.

Apple’s devices and software–and the company’s ethos–are now steeped in user privacy protections that other tech companies would never dream of embracing. And this isn’t a stance Apple has only recently adopted. It is something that has been building for years at the company, starting under Steve Jobs’ leadership and rapidly accelerating under Tim Cook’s reign.

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It has only been in the last few years that the perils of online privacy have made their way to the forefront of national conversation, thanks to the Cambridge Analytica scandal and a seemingly unending string of data breaches and hacks. Such events have left consumers rightly worried just how the data tech companies are collecting about them are being used and abused. Yet Apple seems to be the only major tech company that had the foresight–and the will–to begin tackling these issues before they reached a crisis point.

Apple protects your privacy other tech companies won’t

With each recent iteration of iOS and MacOS, Apple has steadily made it harder for third-parties to siphon our data from us. For example, Apple’s Safari browser was the first browser to block third-party cookies by default. In iOS 11 and MacOS High Sierra, Apple went a step further and implemented Intelligent Tracking Prevention, which reduces the ability of advertisers to track your movements around the web.

iOS 12, which ships on the new iPhones announced this week–and will be available for all iPhones and iPads going back to the iPhone 5s and original iPad Air–will allow users to shield themselves even more from the likes of Google and Facebook, whose prying digital eyes tracking us around the web via the embedded Like and Share buttons on web pages. Yep, Facebook and Google can track your movements even if you don’t interact with these buttons–well, until Apple shut that down.

In iOS 12 Apple is also introducing anti-fingerprinting technology in Safari. Fingerprinting is a tracking technology advertisers and data firms use to identify your movements online. They do this by recording characteristics about the device you are using–such as hard drive size, screen resolution, fonts installed, and more–and then recording a log of that device’s movements. Though fingerprinting doesn’t give the firms access to your name, they know what the owner of a specific device does online and can build a profile around those actions. Well, again, until Apple shut that down with iOS 12 by stripping the unique characteristics of your device away from advertisers’ tracking software. These same benefits are also found in Apple’s latest MacOS Mojave, by the way.

iPhone XSs and iPhone XS Max [Photo: courtesy of Apple]

And Apple’s privacy protections extend to the hardware itself. In iOS 11, Apple introduced tech that physically disables data transfers from a device’s Lightning port to thwart bad actors from using cracking tools to access your data on your device. The company was also the first to introduce full disk encryption on its laptops and desktops with its FileVault technology. With FileVault 2, it turned this encryption on by default on every Mac–making it infinitely harder for someone with access to your Mac to access the data on it without the password. And with its latest MacBook Pros Apple even introduced a hardware backstop where the microphone in the laptop is automatically disabled when the lid is closed–ensuring no one can listen in on you. Further, in MacOS Mojave, apps will now need your explicit permission to access your Mac’s camera and microphone, so malware can’t hijack your camera to creep in on you and advertisers can’t use ultrasonic ad tracking to hear what you are watching on television.

Apple is now also enforcing its strict privacy protection policies on third-party developers. The company recently forced Facebook to remove its Onavo Protect VPN app from the App Store because Facebook was using it to create a log of every website an Onavo user went to (the app is still available for Android devices). Apple is also requiring all of its app developers to have a publicly posted privacy policy on how they use user data if they want their apps to continue to be available in the App Store after their next app update. While simply forcing app developers to publish their privacy policies can’t stop bad developers from abusing user data, it will create a written record that will make it easier to call developers out on privacy violations.

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Why Apple can do what Facebook and Google can’t

Once I’ve explained all of these points, some of my friends ask me why can Apple do this. Or to put it another way, why don’t other tech giants like Facebook and Google? A small part of the reason is ideological. So far, Tim Cook hasn’t said or done anything that makes me think his claim that privacy is a fundamental human right isn’t sincere.

But let’s be honest–Apple is a corporation, and a corporation’s goal is to make as much money as possible. In this age of tech giants, user data may be the new black gold, but Apple’s business model doesn’t rely on monetizing such information. Apple makes its hundreds of billions every year by selling physical products that have a high markup. Facebook and Google, on the other hand, have a business model built around advertisers who want as much data about users as possible so they can better target them. This is why, for example, Google would never build the types of anti-tracking and privacy protections into the Android OS that Apple has done with MacOS and iOS. Google–and Facebook–aren’t going to cut off their access to all that black gold.

That’s not to say Apple doesn’t collect user data, it does; it just keeps it to a minimum. Matter of fact, iOS devices send ten times less data to Apple than Android devices send to Google, according to independent researchers. And most of the information an iOS device does send back to Apple is obfuscated with a technique called Differential Privacy, which adds random information to a user’s data before it reaches Apple so the company has no way of knowing that it came from your device.

Apple can still improve its privacy protections

Mind you, all this isn’t to say Apple still can’t improve user privacy. My biggest gripe here is that while Apple uses end-to-end encryption for user passwords and messages, among other data–preventing hackers, authorities, and even Apple itself from accessing such information–it hasn’t expanded that end-to-end encryption to other places that need it. For instance, as many of us move to storing all of our files online, it’s disappointing that Apple doesn’t offer end-to-end encryption for files stored in iCloud Drive and the Notes app.

However, I should add a caveat. I understand why Apple (and Dropbox and other cloud storage providers) doesn’t provide end-to-end encryption for documents stored in the cloud: it’s a trade-off between user experience and security. If Apple were to enable end-to-end encryption on iCloud Drive and a user, such as my 71-year-old mother, did forget a password, Apple would be physically unable to recover their photos, financial documents, and any other data they have stored in iCloud. Still, having an option to enable end-to-end encryption on iCloud Drive would be nice for those of us willing to take the risk.

Another area where Apple could take the lead in improved privacy protections is by restricting which data fields are shared when a user decides to grant an app access to their contacts. Right now, all contacts data–from names to emails, phone numbers, birthdays, and home addresses–are upload to an app developer’s servers, and who knows what those developers do with that information at that point? Additionally, the notes section of a contact card is also uploaded–presenting a big security risk as many people use the notes section on a contact card to write personal information (such as a child’s social security number). Ideally, Apple will restrict contact data uploads to just the names and email addresses in the future–and this is something I expect we’ll see the company do sooner rather than later.

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Yet despite these limited gripes, my recommendation stands. When you pay that extra money for an Apple product, you’re not just buying better industrial design or more advanced underlying tech–you’re buying the right to keep more information about yourself to yourself. In an age when data breaches are the norm, data manipulation is a business model, and corporate surveillance of your life is at an all-time high–what better product is there than privacy?

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