The data industrial complex

At the 40th International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook stole the headlines when he - without naming names - referred to something he dubbed the “data industrial complex”, where:

“Our own information, from the everyday to the deeply personal, is being weaponized against us with military efficiency. Every day, billions of dollars change hands and countless decisions are made on the basis of our likes and dislikes, our friends and families, our relationships and conversations, our wishes and fears, our hopes and dreams. These scraps of data, each one harmless enough on its own, are carefully assembled, synthesized, traded, and sold.”

He has two companies in mind, both of which happen to be competitors of his (one more so than the other). Those two companies are Google and Facebook, which survive by bundling and selling the information that millions of people, knowingly or not, upload to their servers on daily basis.

This. Is. Surveillance.

The above heading is from Tim Cook’s speech. He’s right, but I think he takes it too far. The only way these companies are able to track you is by using the information you give them. Facebook didn’t install a tracking device on your phone; you did (e.g. its Messenger app). Google only knows about your interests because you plugged them into google.com, or you used its mapping service to find a restaurant.

Don’t get me wrong, the practice leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. I personally try to avoid the ‘data industrial complex’ companies wherever possible, for example by using DuckDuckGo instead of Google, Signal instead of messenger, and deleting the malware that is Facebook entirely. There are plenty of privacy-focused alternatives out there, it’s just people - demonstrated by their actions - don’t seem to care.

I should also add that Tim Cook has a clear vested interest here. He may very well be an angel, but Apple doesn’t rely on advertising revenue to survive (although it has pocketed some of Google’s by selling its users’ data), so if the government regulated that business model away then it would likely benefit Apple. Thus I wasn’t surprised when I heard his proposed solution:

“We should celebrate the transformative work of the European institutions tasked with the successful implementation of the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation]. We also celebrate the new steps taken, not only here in Europe, but around the world. In Singapore, Japan, Brazil, New Zealand, and many more nations, regulators are asking tough questions and crafting effective reforms.

It is time for the rest of the world, including my home country, to follow your lead. We at Apple are in full support of a comprehensive federal privacy law in the United States.”

A federal privacy law might help on some margins, but I’m skeptical as to the ability of politicians to get it right. The winners will almost certainly be the FAANGS (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google), as they will throw an enormous amount of resources at whatever legislation is proposed to protect (and further) their interests. Facebook has literally asked to be regulated in the past.

The losers will be the usual suspects: consumers, who will probably have to deal with yet another annoying “we use cookies” pop-up box on every website they visit; and smaller companies, or competitors that do not even exist today, which will find it too costly to comply with the new rules.

Will a new law actually protect people’s privacy? Not really. Legislators don’t know enough about it so will rely on industry feedback, which have the effect of watering it down. Terms of service agreements will probably get a bit longer and require a few more clicks. It may also force companies to get creative with how they use your information, but it won’t stop them collecting it.

The only way to truly protect your data is through encryption, something the Australian government and many others are actively working against. Essentially, the very same people Tim Cook wants to draft up legislation to protect your privacy are hard at work undermining it.

Go figure.

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