By Taylor Ferrara
Last year, Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, was the keynote speaker at a privacy-conference in Brussels. He stated, “We at Apple believe that privacy is a fundamental human right […] But we also recognize that not everyone sees things as we do […] This is surveillance […] And these stockpiles of personal data serve only to enrich the companies that collect them.” Mr. Cook was pleading for the need to end the collection and sale of data. Specifically, he was discussing the need for data privacy laws in the United States, which would focus on securing data, minimizing the amount of data collected, and informing users on how their data will be used.
Since these comments were made, have supporters of Apple products seen, listened to, or read about Apple or Tim Cook doing more than preach about this growing issue within the United States? No. For a while now, Apple has put on this façade of being our white knight in caring about our data privacy. Yet, if you look inside this white knight’s armor, you will find something dark and ugly. For instance, last week a fight emerged between Apple and Facebook. Facebook was caught paying people to download an app which would allow it to collect a massive amount of private information, such as text messages, emails, photos and more from iPhone users. Facebook claimed it was for research. In response, Apple revoked Facebook’s ability to create custom iPhone apps designed for only Facebook employees.
Most people agree that Apple’s actions were appropriate. Yet, others believe Apple should have done more after making claims about the need to “change the data economy.” If Apple did care about privacy, as they have claimed, it could have taken “any number of actions” in keeping our private data safe from violators using its platform. As long as Apple continues to act this way, consumers should stop perceiving Apple as a higher moral company compared to Google or Facebook.
Let’s take a step back for a moment. In order for an app to be distributed on an iPhone, the creators have to “pay an annual fee to Apple.” In turn, Apple will then issue a “certificate” which would allow the creators to distribute the particular app. There are two types of “certificates.” The most common certificates are given to apps that are displayed in the Apple App Store. The second type of certificates is called “enterprise certificates.” These types of apps are essentially used at companies for internal purposes. In any case, once Apple receives payment for an app, Apple then allows the creator to distribute the app on its platform. When Facebook was caught distributing its “data-collection app” to people outside of its company, Apple responded by revoking Facebook’s “enterprise certificate.” On its face, Apple’s actions appeared to be consistent with the calls to protect the user’s privacy rights. However, Apple was more focused on enforcing the licensing agreement. “Apple is flexing its contract-law muscle, not its privacy muscle, and gaining a publicity win in the process.”
Although Facebook was seen as violating data privacy, Apple has been known to benefit from conducting business with well-known privacy offenders. For example, Safari, the app which is defaulted on every iPhone, is designed to route a user’s “web searches through Google”. Those searches provided Google with a massive amount of data on Apple product consumers. It has been reported that Google paid Apple nine billion dollars last year for this service.
Despite the fact that Apple was not directly responsible for Google’s misuse of the data, Apple did aid Google in the collection of data from Apple users. If Apple was really concerned about a user’s data-privacy, it could have taken more aggressive action. Considering that Apple owns its own platform, it is in the best position to enforce its values in data privacy and collection. Apple could even invest more funding into other apps, such as Maps, to prevent trade software services.
At the end of the day, Apple is not a company that is committed to the user’s data privacy. However, it could be. Apple cannot stop this data economy all on its own, but if Apple wanted to, it could help change or eliminate the data economy in the technology industry. A company that claims it wants to change, while doing little or nothing at all is less moral than companies that are doing nothing.
Student Bio: Taylor Ferrara is a second-year student and a staff member for the Journal of High Technology Law. She has a B.S. in Management Information Systems from the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author alone and do not represent the views of JHTL or Suffolk University Law School.