It is very difficult to believe – but the fact is, the market for collecting and marketing personal data has now swelled to a global industry worth over $227 billion annually. Smartphones are one of the main contributors here, having helped this market explode and let companies collect a wide variety of data that encompass various facets of our lives. This is often done without our knowledge and more importantly, without our consent. Apple, in particular, is looking to counteract this and has introduced a number of (improved) privacy features in iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 in order to help users make clear decisions about their data and how they decide to share it.
The challenge of writing about something you can't see, hear, feel or smell
Before I started working on this article, I did ponder over the way in which I ought to approach this topic. Should it be a news story about Apple and their increased efforts when it comes to data protection and privacy, that should be included with the upcoming iOS 14.5 and iPadOS 14.5 updates? Or am I just rehashing the story of John and his daughter Emma, a couple of fictional characters whom Apple used in the story " A Day in the Life of Your Data" to illustrate just how much data is generated in one's daily smartphone usage? By the way, if you're not familiar with data tracking, this Apple story will definitely be worth a read as it delivers the basics of the matter in a quick, simple, yet informative manner.
My final decision was to deliver a degree of commentary combined with news elements. I'm not a privacy specialist myself, nor have I ever seen a full data profile from a data broker. However, I have been deeply involved on a professional basis with the internet and its possibilities for over two decades now. I've planned marketing campaigns that made me almost acutely aware of the possibilities when it comes to targeting people. Also, as the CEO of an online publisher, I know how challenging privacy can be at times.
Privacy is the Internet's radiation. It is totally underestimated.
It may sound too simplistic but to me, data collection on the Internet shares a lot in common with radiation. It is soundless, odourless, and you don't notice anything about it. But it exists, you have heard about it, and you have an idea that it is not so good. After all, who in their right mind would voluntarily enter a radioactive, contaminated area without adequate protective equipment?
We do it all the time on the Internet. According to Apple, each iOS and Android app has an average of six trackers built-in, which collects our data and then sells it to data brokers. The data brokers can then aggregate this to paint a comprehensive picture of virtually every one of us.
The problem with this is that we are actually unaware of this process. We provide our consent for this to happen via lengthy usage and privacy policies, some of which are difficult to understand, without any real transparency shown. I think - wait, I'm sure of this: If we knew exactly how much data we were handing over to unknown parties and what could be done with it, we would be similarly alarmed as if we had to live and work right next to a nuclear power plant.
Apple wants to create transparency for users
This is exactly where Apple steps in, beginning with the ignorance of users, and announced last year that it will require app developers to obtain the consent of users for the collection of data before installation in a transparent manner. On the one hand, you are able to view the amount and degree of personal information a particular program can access before installing it, and what data is the profile linked to.
This allows you to think in advance and prepare yourself while having peace of mind as to the degree of personal information that an app developer is able to obtain from you, whether that is necessary, or what kind of consequences it would have under selected circumstances.
Android users also gain access to similar levels of information although not as detailed, before installing new apps. However, Apple now goes one up and provides users with the option to prevent the app developer from tracking data even after installing the app. A menu will enable you to withdraw your consent for data collection if necessary, without altering the basic functionality of the app itself.
Apple has built an entire ecosystem for this purpose, in order to provide app developers with the means to obtain important statistics about installation and usage, but without allowing drawing conclusions about the individual.
It could be a game-changer for the entire industry
What sounds so simple in theory could actually end up as a revolution that could shake up the entire industry. As I mentioned at the beginning: There is an unimaginable amount of money to be made from data collection, followed by processing it and for subsequent commercial exploitation and targeting.
Google and Facebook, in particular, earn billions through personalized advertising. Facebook is known for accessing a lot of personal data through its apps, such as Instagram and WhatsApp, and using it to provide extraordinarily accurate profiles for its clients. And Google earned the nickname "data octopus" early on, long before the company had access to billions of smartphones with their users through the Android mobile operating system.
The EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR / DSGVO) was the first time data collectors and exploiters faced challenges and opposition. This also includes us as online publishers, of course. Even if one can argue about the nature and implementation of the EU Data Protection Directive - it was and is the right thing to do. It cannot and must not happen where advertising networks and data brokers create profiles of us without prior permission and do the same for both adults and children alike.
Apple standing up to the developers and big ad networks and forcing them to act transparently towards us - the end-user - is a remarkable and brave move. And it is a long overdue one.
Data protection is not only important for ethical reasons. We basically need it to protect our democracies as well.
It's a pretty big leap of faith for me to say the following: social networks, filtered information, and ultimately, the targeting and addressing of people who have an affinity for selected topics have also made our political systems vulnerable in recent years. With enough money and the right data, disinformation campaigns and the spreading of populist propaganda can be perfectly controlled.
Banners disguised as news can now be found in abundance under many articles on the Internet. The fatal flaw lies with the people who are being targeted by such extremely precise, targeted advertising - that they usually are unaware that they are the target. They may wonder why are there Crete holiday banners popping up everywhere, since they have just been looking at the latest brochures of a travel agency. But they can't bridge the gap to the fact that it was an app that picked that up: your visit to the nearest travel agency and the duration taken, which can be gleaned from your GPS data.
Once you have a kind of autocracy or regime that is willing to use its power, critics can be identified and tracked very quickly via their smartphones, even when one is trying to lose oneself in huge crowds. The New York Times has pointed out how indispensable the issue of privacy is to functioning democracies and that the window for change is small.
No, you have nothing to hide. But you still don't want people to know everything about you.
"I don't have anything to hide," has been the killer argument for years from those you confront with the frivolous handling of their data.
It's humanly understandable to argue this way. After all, you don't hear, smell, feel any of the effects. In fact, you don't even realize it at the end. Some people even consider personalized advertising as a kind of service.
I could and can even partly follow this line of argument. It makes far more sense to me to see banners advertising a new bike than women's underwear. However, technical progress has advanced at a rapid pace and we humans are no longer able to follow it cognitively. I don't think the vast majority of people think about whether there might be consequences if you happen to appear in the background of a picture of a demonstration. Software that searches all the freely available images on the Internet for a face of your choice already exists.
Imagine you want to enter the US, but a red warning light flashes on the computer when you scan your passport, and the Border Customs agent turns you away. Why? The official behind the plastic window doesn't know it himself. Similarly clueless would be the bank clerk who sits in front of his computer and is about to deny you a loan. Did you sound too depressed when you used your voice assistant recently? Are you not getting enough exercise? Are you aligned with the wrong Facebook friends? Were you in the wrong place at the wrong time, perhaps by accident?
Even (former) US presidents are not safe from data tracking
The fact that data protection is particularly important even - or perhaps even especially - for the most exposed people on our planet can be seen in the example of Donald Trump and the New York Times, in which a comprehensive report on data protection (this is a must-read for anyone interested) used the ex-US president as an example to illustrate just how easy it is to be tracked using freely available data. The newspaper even managed to create meaningful movement profiles of the president and his key advisors.
If a media outlet with limited resources can already manage to spy to such a degree on the former US president in such a manner, what then can those with unlimited resources do?
Apple's commitment needs to be echoed by other companies as well
Apple taking the route of data security route is nothing new. Even before this, the Cupertino-based company was ahead of the competition in this matter. However, it is encouraging to see this step taken with the iOS/iPadOS 14.5 update, and this move has forced the hands of other big players.
While Zuckerberg allegedly expressed himself in a private setting with these combative words (" We must inflict pain on Apple"), Google seems to understand the signs of the times and the will of the people better. In a blog post at the beginning of March 2021, Google published that they wanted to do away with personalized advertising from next year onwards.
Whether this declaration by Google can now also be interpreted as a reaction to the Apple push in terms of data protection remains unclear. For us users, however, this is good news: steps in the right direction.
There is still a long way to go, but as always, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.