The challenge of writing about something that you can’t see, hear, feel or smell
Before I started working on this article, I thought about how to approach this topic. Should it be a message about Apple and its increased privacy and privacy efforts that should be included in the upcoming updates for iOS 14.5 and iPadOS 14.5? Or am I just reworking the story of John and his daughter Emma, a couple of fictional characters that Apple used in the story “A Day in the Life of Your Data” to illustrate how much data is generated in the daily use of the smartphone become? By the way, if you are not familiar with data tracking, this Apple story is definitely worth reading as it gets you through the basics of the matter in a quick, easy, yet informative way.
My final decision was to provide some level of comments combined with news items. I’m not a data protection specialist myself and have never seen a full data profile from a data broker. For more than two decades, however, I have been professionally intensively involved with the Internet and its possibilities. I planned marketing campaigns that alerted me almost exactly to the possibilities of addressing people. As the CEO of an online publisher, I also know how difficult privacy can be at times.
Data protection is the radiation of the internet. It’s totally underestimated.
It may sound too simple, but for me, online data collection has a lot in common with radiation. It’s silent, odorless and you don’t notice anything. But it does exist, you’ve heard about it, and you have an idea that it’s not that good. Who, in their right mind, would voluntarily enter a radioactive, contaminated area without proper protective equipment?
We do this on the internet all the time. According to Apple, an average of six trackers are integrated into every iOS and Android app, which collect our data and then sell it to data brokers. The data brokers can then aggregate this to paint a complete picture of virtually each of us.
The problem with this is that we are actually not aware of this process. We agree that this is done through lengthy usage and privacy policies, some of which are difficult to understand without showing real transparency. I think – wait, I am sure: If we knew exactly how much data we would pass on to unknown parties and what could be done with it, we would be as alarmed as if we had to live and work right next door in a nuclear power plant.
Apple wants to create transparency for users
This is exactly where Apple comes in, starting with the ignorance of users, and announced last year that app developers must transparently obtain user consent to collect data before installation. On the one hand, you can view the amount and level of personal information that a particular program can access before it is installed and what data the profile is associated with.
This allows you to think ahead of time and prepare for how much personal information an app developer can get from you, whether it is necessary or what the consequences are in certain circumstances.
Android users are also given access to similar information, albeit not in as much detail, before installing new apps. However, Apple now offers the ability to prevent the app developer from tracking data even after installing the app. If necessary, you can revoke your consent to data collection via a menu without changing the basic functionality of the app itself.
For this purpose, Apple has built an entire ecosystem to give app developers the opportunity to obtain important statistics on installation and usage, but without drawing any conclusions about the individual.
It could be of vital importance to the entire industry
What sounds so simple in theory could actually end as a revolution that could shake up the entire industry. As mentioned at the beginning, an unimaginable amount of money can be earned with data acquisition, subsequent processing, and subsequent commercial use and alignment.
Google and Facebook in particular earn billions from personalized advertising. Facebook is known for accessing a lot of personal data through its apps like Instagram and WhatsApp and using it to provide extremely accurate profiles to its customers. And Google earned the nickname “Data Octopus” early on, long before the company and its users could access billions of smartphones via the mobile Android operating system.
The General Data Protection Regulation of the EU (GDPR / GDPR) was the first time that data collectors and processors were exposed to challenges and resistance. Of course, this also includes us as an online publisher. Even if you can argue about the type and implementation of the EU data protection directive – it was and is the right thing to do. It cannot and must not happen that advertising networks and data brokers create profiles of us for both adults and children without prior authorization.
It is a remarkable and bold move that Apple is going against the developers and large advertising networks, forcing them to be transparent with us – the end user. And it’s long overdue.
Data protection is not only important for ethical reasons. In principle, we also need it to protect our democracies.
It’s a pretty big leap of faith for me to say the following: social networks, filtered information, and ultimately targeting and addressing people who have an affinity for selected topics have also made our political systems vulnerable in recent years. With enough money and the right data, disinformation campaigns and the spread of populist propaganda can be perfectly controlled.
Banners disguised as news are now in abundance among many articles on the Internet. The fatal flaw lies with the people who are targeted by such highly precise, targeted advertising – that they usually don’t know they are the target. You may be wondering why Crete Christmas banners are popping up everywhere after just looking at the latest brochures from a travel agent. But they can’t bridge the gap to the fact that it was an app that picked up: your visit to the nearest travel agent and the duration that you can deduce from your GPS data.
Once you have some kind of autocracy or regime ready to use its power, critics can be identified and tracked very quickly via their smartphones, even when trying to get lost in a large crowd. The New York Times has pointed out how vital privacy is to functioning democracies and that the window for change is small.
No, you have nothing to hide. But you still don’t want people to know all about you.
“I have nothing to hide” has been the killer argument of those who are faced with careless handling of their data for years.
It is humanly understandable to argue that way. After all, you don’t hear, smell or feel any of the effects. In fact, you don’t even notice it in the end. Some people even consider personalized advertising a type of service.
I could and can even partially follow this line of argument. For me, seeing banners promoting a new bike makes a lot more sense than women’s underwear. However, technological progress has made rapid advances and we humans are no longer able to cognitively follow it. I don’t think the vast majority of people think about whether there might be any consequences if you happen to appear in the background of a demonstration picture. There is already software available that searches all freely available images on the Internet for a face of your choice.
Imagine you want to enter the United States, but a red warning light on the computer flashes when you scan your passport and the border customs officer turns you away. Why? The officer behind the plastic window doesn’t know himself. The bank clerk sitting in front of his computer and trying to deny you a loan would be similarly clueless. Did you sound too depressed when you recently used your voice assistant? Aren’t you getting enough exercise? Are you connected to the wrong Facebook friends? Were you in the wrong place at the wrong time, maybe by accident?
Even (former) US presidents are not safe from data tracking
The fact that privacy is especially important – or perhaps especially – for even the most vulnerable people on our planet is illustrated by the example of Donald Trump and the New York Times, where a comprehensive report on privacy (this is a must- Read for anyone interested) has used the ex-US President as an example to illustrate how easy it is to be tracked with freely available data. The newspaper even managed to create meaningful movement profiles of the president and his key advisors.
If a media company with limited resources already manages to spy on the former US president to such an extent in this way, what can those with unlimited resources do?
Apple’s commitment also needs to be confirmed by other companies
Apple, taking the data security path, is nothing new. The Cupertino-based company had already been ahead of the competition in this matter. However, it’s encouraging to see this move with the iOS / iPadOS 14.5 update, and this move has forced the hands of other great players.
While Zuckerberg allegedly used these combative words in a private setting (“We have to cause Apple pain”), Google seems to understand the signs of the times and the will of the people better. In a blog post at the beginning of March 2021, Google published that personalized advertising should be phased out from next year.
It remains unclear whether this statement from Google can also be interpreted as a reaction to Apple’s data protection push. For us users, however, this is good news: steps in the right direction.
There is still a long way to go, but as always, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.