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Apple spins privacy fears into PR gold

“We believe the customer should be in control of their own information.” Sound pretty obvious right? But coming from Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple, it has a dozen subtle (and not so subtle) meanings and implications.

Speaking to an audience in Washington DC last week, Cook launched a stinging attack on tech giants like Google and Facebook that rely on advertising for the majority of their revenue. 

“You might like these so-called free services, but we don’t think they’re worth having your email, your search history and now even your family photos data mined and sold off for god knows what advertising purpose. And we think some day, customers will see this for what it is.”

This is not the first time Cook has publicly bashed his advertising-supported peers. In November last year, on a television talk show, he was asked about all the personal data held by “companies like Google”. His response: “Our business is not based on having information about you. You’re not our product.”

Why would Apple, the world’s largest and most profitable technology company, care about Google and Facebook? They appear to be in completely different markets: computing devices, web search and social networking, respectively. 

But when technology companies get as big as these three, with billions of customers, they start to run out of space to grow in their own markets. The logical strategy is then to invade other markets. 

For instance Google launched its Android operating system for mobile phones as a direct competitor to Apple’s iOS. That move alone has probably cost Apple tens of billions of dollars in lost market share and revenue.

Cook’s argument, while intellectually and ethically valid, is extremely convenient. Apple has never been particularly good at offering services on the web, and its attempts at social media platforms have always failed miserably. Anyone remember iTunes Ping?

One notable exception is iCloud, the remote storage and synchronisation service Apple has baked into all of its products, which has grabbed a decent chunk of market share. But many millions of Apple customers (including me) still prefer to use Google’s equivalent services like Gmail.

Apple understands that loyalty to its core products is not just about the hardware. A smartphone without access to great software and services is an overpriced camera with a crappy battery life and a R250 cellphone attached to it. If Google or Facebook wins the software war, then Apple’s hardware business will wither away. So this really is a fight to the death.

That’s why Cook’s attack is so clever. He’s essentially saying that Apple’s online services are truly private while its competitors products are the exact opposite. The reality is far more nuanced than that, but the nugget of truth is what makes this such potent spin.

Cook’s speech wasn’t entirely self-serving though. He has been publicly and pointedly criticising government surveillance for the past year, and last week was no exception. 

“There’s another attack on our civil liberties that we see heating up every day — it’s the battle over encryption. Some in Washington are hoping to undermine the ability of ordinary citizens to encrypt their data,” Cook said at the event – a fundraising dinner for a privacy lobby named EPIC.

Encryption is what keeps data secure as it flows around the internet. That green lock you see when you log into internet banking is a sign that the connection between you and the service is encrypted. Anyone listening in on that connection would only get scrambled data, unreadable without a special software key.

But only encrypting the connection is no longer good enough if you want to avoid being tracked by government spies like the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA). To be truly secure you need to encrypt the data itself as well. 

Previous encryption standards were like an armoured cars carrying your data safely over the internet. They kept your data safe from common criminals but NSA agents could covertly stop that car and inspect its contents, or they could go to the company at the other end and force them to reveal the data.

The new generation of encryption is much deeper. The messages themselves are scrambled, and remain scrambled even when they reach the other side. So anyone intercepting the armoured car will find the data unreadable. Not even the company providing the service can unscramble them. The only person that can read them is their recipient.

This technology, known as end-to-end encryption, is being rapidly adopted by tech companies as a way to sooth their customer’s fears about surveillance. Apple is leading the pack in many respects. Its flagship iMessage service – a competitor to WhatsApp – makes use of the technology, as do most of its other online properties.

Speaking on TV last year, Cook deftly spun this anti-surveillance stance into the same thread as Apple’s business model: “Our view is, when we design a new service, we try not to collect data. So we’re not reading your email. We’re not reading your iMessage. If the government laid a subpoena to get iMessages, we can’t provide it. It’s encrypted and we don’t have a key.”

Apple isn’t the only one using this technology. WhatsApp launched end-to-end encryption on its service late last year and likes to brag that its security is better than Apple’s. Google is also working to integrate the technology, as are thousands of other tech companies.

That reality is terrifying law enforcement and intelligence agencies across the globe. A high ranking FBI official played the ultimate trump card last week, saying that this technology creates “dark spaces” in which terrorist groups can “recruit, radicalise, plot and plan”. The irony that this once obscure technology has been popularised as a direct result of governmental misbehaviour and overreach seems to have escaped the FBI.

Officials and lawmakers are putting increasing pressure on companies like Apple to provide them with “master keys” that will unlock data regardless of how it is encrypted. But, as Cook points out, “If you put a key under the mat for the cops, a burglar can find it, too.” Short of radical new legislation, it looks unlikely that these master keys will ever become a reality.

So what does some old rich white dude on the other side of the planet have to do with the rest of its inhabitants? Plenty. Although Cook is interested mainly in Apple’s own good fortune, his stance helps to make it harder for any government to surveil its citizens. 

At the current rate of progress end-to-end encryption will be integrated into all major technology platforms before the end of the decade. Given that Google and Apple together control around 98% of the global smartphone market, once they adopt these technologies, it will spread very quickly.

This will allow dissidents in repressive countries like China, Pakistan, Venezuela and Iran to organise movements and voice their opinions safely and without fear of government interference. The fact that this technology is also a $10-billion poker chip in a global public relations war doesn’t nullify its public good.

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Alistair Fairweather
Alistair is the founder of PlainSpeak, a technology consultancy based in Cape Town.

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