A few weeks ago, Apple released an iOS update that shows you how much data every app on your phone or tablet is collecting — and it can be surprising. For example, even though WhatsApp offers encrypted messaging — no one can read your actual messages — it still collects a ton of other information, like your location, what you buy through the service, who your friends are, and shares all that with parent company Facebook.
The idea here is much like the idea that when you find out a single burrito has 1,000 calories, you’ll be horrified and make better choices. Of course, Apple would love for people to choose its built-in apps instead. I spoke with Ashkan Soltani, a fellow at Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy & Technology. He says the labels could surprise people if they care. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Ashkan Soltani: Apple has broken it down to essentially data that’s linked to you. So things like your email address, but also device identifiers, random numeric identifiers that have been used to essentially say you’re Molly Wood without necessarily saying your name. And then, data used to track you. So if you’re using a dating app, or like a prayer app to pray, they might be able to know that you are religious in some way.
Molly Wood: It sounds like you’re not very hopeful that this is going to make a meaningful difference in consumer behavior.
Soltani: You know, I’m optimistic that the more folks understand these practices, and then the more choices given to them, that over time, we’ll see the benefit. But I don’t think immediately people are going to stop using the Facebook app or the Instagram app just because it collects a ton of information about them. I think people are kind of locked into this world where they don’t really have an effective choice around privacy. And they’d want to use these apps to communicate with their friends or to shop online. So I don’t know if we’ll see a shift in behavior, but at least we’ll see a shift in awareness.
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Wood: Yeah. Going back to the original nutritional requirements, I mean, we still have obesity in America, but menus have changed.
Soltani: No, absolutely, that’s true. And, in California, we’re fortunate to have privacy laws, one of the first in the country. But we don’t have a national regulator that says certain practices are just plain-out bad, that you cannot engage in certain practices. So if the flashlight app collects your address book and your location information and sells that to a third party, that’s on the consumer to be aware of. And that’s what Apple is trying to help, but there’s no regulator that says you just can’t do that.
Wood: Well, and of course, Apple is the one requiring these disclosures, not, as you say, the government or some kind of standards body. And Apple benefits, in some way, if other apps look worse than Apple’s apps.
Soltani: Indeed. We have this issue of the gatekeepers, essentially, setting so much of our policy. And in this case, we have a benevolent dictator that has essentially chosen some privacy design options that help consumers. But, as you say, Apple is not in the data-selling business as well. And so it does, in fact, help Apple as well.
Wood: Do you have a sense of whether this move and maybe some increasing consumer awareness could push other tech platforms to require similar disclosures? And by other tech platforms, I mean Google.
Soltani: So the issue is that Google is going to be one of the most prominent third parties present in this ecosystem. So most apps, most advertising happens through Google’s platforms, even on Apple apps. Most app developers embed third-party Google Analytics and third-party DoubleClick widgets. So there’s definitely going to be a focus on Google. Whether Google embraces this in their own app store I think remains to be seen. I would say, while the Android team has been somewhat security- and privacy-minded, as a company, advertising and tracking is core to Google’s business model, and I’m not sure that they will shift away from that anytime soon.
Related links: More insight from Molly Wood
Shortly after Apple released the privacy labels, it updated them to include its own apps, which, not surprisingly, do collect less.
There’s a link to the Forbes report on WhatsApp versus iMessage. I highly recommend checking out the charts because even though this is, in some ways, a self-serving exercise by Apple, let’s just say there’s a reason Facebook is objecting to these labels. Because if you think WhatsApp collects a lot of information, wait until you see the chart on Facebook Messenger.
Soltani also sent along a piece from the Wall Street Journal 10 years ago that was one of the earliest to show how much information smartphone apps were collecting and, more crucially, where it was being shared. He said prior to that piece, people really had no idea how much information was being collected beyond basic demographics. And to be honest, most still don’t. It’s a pretty fascinating trip back through time. He also told us he believes there will be a federal privacy law within two years, so consider that our first official prediction for 2021.
And before we go today, I want to share an absolutely heartbreaking story. We’ve been covering accessibility and designing for disability in tech on this show, and I was so sad to hear Tuesday that one of the giants of that work, August de los Reyes, died last month from COVID-19 at age 50. Reyes was paralyzed in 2013 after an accident and a misdiagnosis at the hospital. And he went on, at Microsoft, Pinterest, Google and Varo, to be one of the creators of the theory of inclusive design, the idea that creating products and solutions that include everyone — whether they’re underrepresented minorities or people with disabilities or the elderly — means that you make products that are better for everyone. He’s a person who made the world better in spite of, and because of, his own misfortune. This is a really sad one.