Opinion: Apple’s privacy-first approach has downsides but is really paying dividends now

HomePod reviews almost universally agreed on two things: the speaker sounds incredibly impressive for the size and price, and Apple’s smart speaker is the least-smart one on the market. Both Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home speakers were found to be significantly more capable when it comes to answering questions and carrying out tasks.

This is not, of course, coincidence. Amazon opens its Alexa ‘recipes’ up to any third-party developer, and Google has long snaffled-up as much data as it can to make its smart assistants as capable as possible. Apple, in contrast, carefully controls the personal data available to both itself and to third-party developers …

Neither approach can be said to be objectively better. There’s a scale from ‘really smart and very intrusive’ on one end to ‘really dumb and very safe’ at the other. Every company creating an intelligent assistant has to decide where on that scale it wants to sit, and every user has to decide what trade-off is the best fit for them.

Google sits pretty close to the ‘really smart and very intrusive’ end. It made that decision early on with the launch of the Google Now service. What Google Now did was to observe a whole bunch of online and offline activities in order to predict what you were going to want to know when, and to serve that data to you without being asked.

For example, if you visited a particular place on a recognizable schedule – like commuting to work every day – it would proactively warn you about traffic conditions or public transit delays, depending on how you travelled. If you made a booking with an airline, it would scan your emails for the details and alert you to flight delays. If you regularly used a particular search term, it would note your interest in that topic and proactively provide news on it. And so on.

That type of functionality has now been incorporated into Google Assistant. In consequence, Google’s IA and its corresponding smart speaker is extremely capable – but it uses a great deal of your personal data to power those capabilities.

Apple takes a different view

Apple, in contrast, placed a far greater priority on the privacy of customer data. The company limits the amount of data it collects. When it does collect data, it does so anonymously – or at least, tries to. Siri, for example, has no idea who you are or what your Apple ID is; it does learn your voice, but the data used to do so is associated only with a randomly assigned number. You can read more about that here.

Apple has a very strong privacy policy which opens by stating that Apple believes privacy to be ‘a fundamental human right.’ The company goes to what some would describe as extreme lengths to ensure that customer data is jealously guarded.

The company, of course, famously resisted strong pressure by the FBI to weaken its security, arguing that user privacy was important enough to defend the principle even in the face of terrorism. And asked what Tim Cook would do in Facebook’s position, he was able to cheerfully reply “I wouldn’t be in this situation.”

All of which means it’s no surprise that Apple has the least-smart smart assistant. Even last summer, way before the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica controversy, it was clear that our own readers were fully behind Apple’s approach. Almost two-thirds of you strongly favored privacy over smarts, and less than 7% of you held the opposite view. We’ll see below whether the needles have moved any since then.

Privacy becoming a mass-market concern

But we’re techies, with rather greater appreciation than mass-market consumers of what can be done with big data. The average consumer, at the time of HomePod’s launch, wouldn’t have had privacy so high on their radar. To them, the most visible issue might be that HomePod was dumber than its rivals.

However, increasing publicity around privacy controversies is changing that. Even my least-techy friends seem to have at least a general familiarity with the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica story. Mainstream news coverage has transformed the privacy of user data from something only techies thought about to something that is front of mind now for Normals.

I wrote previously that this isn’t a black-and-white issue.

I don’t think either approach is right or wrong. So long as companies are upfront about what they do with my data, I’m happy to weigh up the pros & cons and make my own decision about how much privacy I’m willing to sacrifice in order to take advantage of a particular service.

But I also recognized that, for some people in some parts of the world, the privacy of their data and communications is literally a life-and-death matter. So I’m very glad there’s one company sitting close to the ‘extreme privacy’ end of the scale.

I do believe that, for Apple, this is an ethical issue first and foremost, and a commercial one only in as much as it makes sense to turn a moral decision into a marketing benefit. But I also think that, in the current climate, the value of that marketing message has increased tremendously – and is likely to further grow in value as, inevitably, more privacy breaches hit the mainstream news.

Apple placed its bet at one end of the scale. At the time of the HomePod launch, many were questioning that decision. But right now, that end of the scale is looking like the smart place to be.

Do you agree? Or are Siri smarts worth a less-protective approach to privacy? As ever, please take our poll and share your thoughts in the comments.

Photos: Jeff Benjamin; Rack Solutions; Dado Ruvic/Reuters


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