Apple takes privacy fight to Facebook

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For the last few years, my favourite tech companies have been Apple and Microsoft. It’s not just that I use a MacBook (the delightful new M1 Pro) and an iPhone, nor that I use Microsoft Word for all my writing.

I like them because they sell me a service which I pay for with my credit card – not from them data-mining everything about me and my online habits so that they can sell me to their real customers, the advertisers.

Yeah Google and Facebook, I’m glaring at you. There is no wonder that the greatest outcry from an impending new update to Apple’s iPhone software – and arguably the only time in your life you may remember an update number – is called iOS 14.5.

Most big software announcements – in Apple’s case, on an annual basis for its flagship smartphones – are the whole number, like iOS 14. The point one, point two, iterations are usually the bugs being fixed or vulnerabilities patched.

This week’s hugely significant iPhone update is an unusually contentious point five. The reason is that it introduces an option for us to stop advertisers tracking us as we move around the internet.

Facebook would have you believe something as significant and monumental as the Cambridge Analytica scandal hasn’t happened – but only because it has such a significant and monumental impact on Facebook itself, which makes its billions of dollars of revenue from such targeted advertising.

In iOS 14.5 Apple is implementing App Tracking Transparency (ATT), which requires app makers to inform users what data they will collect, how they will use it and if they will track users. If you are an iPhone user, expect pop-up alerts asking for permission to be tracked. Click no, for your own sake.

History will look back at this strange period of human history and lament how easily, and foolishly, we gave away our personal data in the mistaken belief that automated, personalised advertising is the modern business model for providing services. It isn’t. It’s been a huge con. WhatsApp originally charged $1 a year, which I would gladly pay – as would many of the over 1bn users.

On another front, CEO Tim Cook has some mounting anticompetitive problems over Apple’s 30% fee for in-app purchases in its App Store and the billions of dollars that Google pays it every year to be the default iPhone search engine. But he seemingly cares about privacy and has often been a vocal critic of Facebook and Google for their data-mining habits

“At a moment of rampant disinformation and conspiracy theories juiced by algorithms,” Cook said in January, ”we can no longer turn a blind eye to a theory of technology that says all engagement is good engagement – the longer the better – and all with the goal of collecting as much data as possible”.

The great irony is that Facebook has amassed so data about just about everybody, whether you’re one of its 2.85bn monthly active users or not, that it probably doesn’t need any more to profile us for advertising.

Last year when Apple announced this app transparency, Facebook’s head of ads and business products Dan Levy said last December – without any irony – that Apple policies are “about control of the entire internet”. It hurts when the bigger bully bullies the big bully, doesn’t it.

This article first appeared in the Financial Mail.

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."