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The Hottest Product We Want Is Privacy, But How Many Tech Giants Are Actually Bothered?

The Hottest Product We Want Is Privacy, But How Many Tech Giants Are Actually Bothered?

Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook and pretty much everyone else championed the cause of user data privacy. But remember, business models play a big part.

Forget the foldable laptops. Forget the 8K TVs. Forget those damn Impossible Burger 2.0 things. What we care about is privacy. And if you were clued in on the developments at the Consumer Electronics Show 2020 (CES 2020, if you like it short), you would probably get the impression that data privacy, which is our data, is a big deal for most tech companies. Everyone had their PR machinery in overdrive talking about the importance of keeping the personal data that you and I have on our phones, computers and on the web, safe from prying eyes and not be used for tracking, serving adverts and what not. But once the excitement of CES wanes and the dust settles, will any of this really make a difference in how tech companies handle our data?

Google has added new voice commands for Assistant. The first is “Hey Google, this wasn’t for you” in case the Assistant in your phone, Home smart speakers or the Nest smart displays suddenly wakes up believing you called out to it. This happens often, something you’ll notice if you have a smart speaker at home and there are conversations happening in the vicinity. Then there is the “Hey Google, delete everything I said to you this week” to wipe the history of the commands and conversations you may have had with Google Assistant in the past few days. As for the ability to delete the usage history, Amazon’s Alexa assistant has had this for quite some time now.

Then there is Facebook which announced a new version of its Privacy Checkup tool. Perhaps the biggest update which is tool has received in a while. The expanded tool now allows better controls over who can see what you share, how people can find you on Facebook, how to keep your account secure and your data settings on Facebook. "We know privacy is personal, and we've integrated privacy tips to help you make the right privacy decisions for you," Facebook said in an official statement. Erin Egan, VP & Chief Privacy Officer, Policy at Facebook was part of the "Chief Privacy Officer Roundtable: What Do Consumers Want?" session at CES and insisted that Facebook is serious about user data privacy. At times, she did make comparisons with Apple and said that Facebook takes data privacy as seriously as the iPhone maker. While she appreciated the different business models, there is the insistence that privacy protection was primary for both. However, Egan did also hint at the very basic requirement of Facebook’s business model, which is all about advertising. Smart advertising relies on user data, which means the isolation can only be done to a certain extent. In the end, the data that we generate for Facebook will be used for advertising designed for us. Because that is how things are sold. And money is earned. And profits are generated. “We're very committed to protecting privacy and our advertising business model,” she said.

Part of the same roundtable was Rebecca Slaughter, a Federal Trade Commissioner, who didn’t hold back in her assessment that tech companies seem to be putting the responsibility of safeguarding the data on the users themselves. “It's also important that we think about ways that the burden be placed not just on the consumer, but that the collectors and stewards of data have the responsibility to minimize what's collected, minimize what's retained, without creating this endless trove of data,” she said.

Apple made an appearance at CES after a gap of 28 years. No new products, which means no new iPhones or iPads were on the agenda. They simply wanted to talk about privacy. Jane Horvath, Senior Director of Global Privacy at Apple spoke about “privacy by design”, something Apple has talked about since iOS 13 rolled out. And with good effect too. The company detailed how they introduce noise into frequently used emoji datasets to anonymize them, how the company screens content on the iCloud cloud storage service for child pornography and how the processing of the photographs that you click in the Photos app is done on the device itself, which means that information never leaves your iPhone or iPad or Mac.

The other big issue was how Apple would help law enforcement. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has asked for Apple’s assistance in extracting data from password-protected iPhones used by Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, suspected of killing three people in a shooting at a Navy base in Pensacola, Florida last month. “Our phones are relatively small and they get lost and stolen,” Horvath said. “If we’re going to be able to rely on our health data and finance data on our devices, we need to make sure that if you misplace that device, you’re not losing your sensitive data,” said Horvath. She insists that to access any user data that is not uploaded to iCloud, Apple would have to build a special software. While she insists Apple is working with law enforcement to support them as best it can, she did clarify that building such software wasn’t something that Apple intended to do. “Building back doors into encryption is not the way we are going to solve those issues,” she said.

Apple isn’t the only company that is having a conversation with law enforcement. Amazon has confirmed that users of the products made by Ring, a home security company, will now allow users to opt out from sharing videos captured by their security cameras, with law enforcement agencies. Late last year, Amazon had faced criticism for partnering with 400 police forces across the US, and allowing them access to footage captured by the cameras installed by Ring users. Amazon had, at the time, called it the “new neighbourhood watch” (they have a Neighbors app and the Neighbors Portal too). Amazon had acquired Ring in 2018 for around $800 million. Users weren’t best pleased, forcing the Amazon-owned Ring to offer this opt-out option.