Privacy has become a new frontier in Big Tech’s fight for consumer confidence, and Apple has clocked that (whether reality or perception) it has an advantage over arch-rival Google, given that its business has not been built around capturing, analyzing and monetizing user data.
In January, Apple placed a privacy-focused billboard in Las Vegas, ahead of CES, emblazoned with the company’s “what happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone” tagline.
The billboard depicted an iPhone and linked to Apple’s online marketing-styled privacy page, which promises that “Apple products are designed to protect your privay—every Apple product is designed from the ground up to protect that information. And to empower you to choose what you share and with whom.”
Now the company has gone a step further, trolling Google specifically rather than the tech industry more generally.
The latest billboard has been erected next to a development site on Toronto’s eastern waterfront, where Google’s sister-company Sidewalk Labs plans to deliver next-generation automated urban living. The iPhone is pictured again, this time with a new tagline that reads: “We’re in the business of staying out of yours. Privacy. That’s iPhone.”
On the surface, the C1.3 billion (US$900 million) Sidewalk development plans have the usual promises of quality of living, support for low-cost housing and urban regeneration. But its controversy stems from plans to capture data on people working and living on the site. Cameras and IoT sensors will constantly fuel urban planning initiatives and decisions.
In June, Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff told the media that the company’s “proposal aims to do something extraordinary on Toronto’s eastern waterfront—create a new model of inclusive growth, where cutting-edge technology and forward-thinking urban design combine to achieve an ambitious improvement in every aspect of the way we live.”
The prospect of Google’s data farming being built into the very fabric of offices and homes has unsurprisingly landed badly, despite assurances of an independent trust to govern data collection and usage and a promise that, although data will be used, it won’t be sold without consent. That said, we all know how easy Big Tech have found securing “consent for convenience.”
U.S. venture capitalist Roger McNamee, who has become increasingly critical of Big Tech’s approach to privacy, has described the development plans as “the most highly evolved version to date” of the type of “surveillance capitalism” which is central to the business models of Google and Facebook in particular.
“No matter what Google is offering,” McNamee wrote to the city council, “the value to Toronto cannot possibly approach the value your city is giving up. It is a dystopian vision that has no place in a democratic society.”
Debate continues to rage, ahead of construction which is unlikely to break ground until 2022 at the earliest.
Of more note to those of us not living in Toronto, the privacy frontier is a theme which shows every sign of becoming a major driver of competitive advantage. And Apple has shown every intention of being seen to lead the charge, again whether or not that’s more perception or reality.
The challenge for Google (and Facebook and others), is that with business models built on a foundation of user data, it will be difficult to plot a safe path through. Apple knows this. Regulators know this. The question is whether consumers also know this, and, if so, whether they care enough to do something about it.