No, Google, Apple's privacy is not a luxury item

Google services are subsidised by profits made from your data

Apple, Android, Google, Privacy, iPhone, iOS
Mark Hachman/IDG

Why is privacy a luxury? Possibly because surveillance capitalist firms have subsidized product prices by collecting and trading in the personal data of the people that use their products, enabling them to sell hardware cheap.

The consequences of convenience

The crux of Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s argument against firms such as (obviously including but never named) Apple is that his company offers convenience in exchange for personal secrets, makes its services available for free, and has a “profound commitment” to protecting user privacy.

Except these arguments gloss over several inconveniences:

  • Any Google hardware or product must at some level be subsidised by the profits made on the personal data users share with the company.
  • By subsidizing products in this way, an unequal playing field is created because products that do not draw subsidy from the erosion of user privacy will inevitably cost more, creating an illusion of them being luxuries.
  • Google has an extensive track record of data protection fails – data concerning tens of millions of users was exposed due to that Google Plus flaw, for example. In fact, there are so many privacy concerns that there’s an extensive Wikipedia page about them.
  • Who else recalls Google’s Screenwise Meter iOS app, which quietly collected user data in defiance of Apple’s developer guidelines? That egregious abuse of trust was exposed in 2019. Google said sorry, but only after it was caught.

Democracy dies in dark places

You can read Pichai’s piece here, but for all the statements around democracy and “meaningful choice,” the arguments he’s making still expose weakness in his attempt to rebrand the notion of “privacy.”

Privacy should not mean entities such as Google promise not to sell your data without your consent.

It should mean they don’t collect your personal data in the first place.

Not only that, but privacy also means that when a company does gather your data, it should work strenuously to ensure it cannot be tracked to you.

Just tell the more than 50 million Google + users about that.

History shows that providing personalized services while knowing very little about the person demanding those services is much harder, but not impossible.

In Apple’s case, all that CoreML analysis taking place using personal data held on a person’s device but not shared with any other entity illustrates this.

You get things you need, but you aren’t required to provide unregulated third parties with access to that information. Apple’s whole system is based on providing convenience but not at the cost of your privacy.

Funnily enough, Google now claims to be developing its own on-device AI.

We’ll see how that turns out. 

Luxury privacy

Google says it will introduce a range of privacy-protecting features later this year when it ships Android Q.

“Privacy cannot be a luxury good offered only to people who can afford to buy premium products and services,” the CEO wrote. “Privacy must be equally available to everyone in the world.”

Except this isn’t quite how it works.

Those new Android Q privacy protections won’t be made available to billions of Android users. Some may get a software upgrade, but most will need to spend money on new hardware capable of running the OS. 

In the real world, tens of millions of users will be as unable to afford a new Android Q device as they are a new iPhone. No one really wants to buy a new smartphone every year — the financial and environmental costs of doing so soon add up.

Genuine convenience

Contrast this with Apple’s approach to privacy. Not only has Apple worked to protect privacy for years, but its iOS updates are available to devices up to around 5 years old. On the day they ship.

That’s not luxury.

That’s expectation. No one should expect less.

Realistically, Google’s attempt to define privacy as a luxury item actually serves to illustrate something else — that its business model demands you sacrifice privacy in exchange for cheaper good and services.

Some people like that convenience, but I don’t.

I don’t trust it.

Lots of people don’t — which is why there’s such a strong market in older model iPhones, all of which support iOS 12 and Apple’s latest privacy protections inside devices that cost about the same as those non-luxury Androids that won’t ever run Android Q or any of the new privacy protections Google’s promising a decade since it shipped its first phone OS.

I’m not convinced at all.

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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