Apple, Machine Learning, and Privacy

There’s a lot of noise about machine learning theses days, and the obviously-better deep-learning machines. You know, because it’s deep. Apple is generally considered to be disadvantaged in this tech derby. Why? Because deep learning requires masses of data from the users of the system, and Apple’s privacy policies prevent the company from harvesting that data.

I work for Apple, just so you know. But the narrative on the street comes down to this: Apple can’t compete with its rivals in the field of machine learning because it respects its users too much. For people who say Apple will shed its stand on privacy when it threatens profit for the company, here’s where I say, “Nuh-uh.” Apple proved its priority on privacy.

A second nuh-uh: ApplePay actively makes it impossible for Apple to know your purchase history. There’s good money in that information; Apple doesn’t want it. You think Google Wallet would ever do that? Don’t make me laugh. That’s why Google made it — so they could collect information about your purchasing habits and sell it. But in the world of artificial intelligence, respect for your customers is considered by pundits to be a negative.

But hold on there, Sparky! Getting back to the actual subject of this episode, my employer recently announced a massive implementation of wacky math shit that I think started at Stanford, that allows both aggregation of user data and protection of user privacy.

Apple recently lifted their kimono just a little bit to let the world know that they are players in this realm. Have been a long time. They want to you to know that while respecting user privacy is inconvenient, it’s an obstacle you can work around with enough intelligence and effort.

This is a message that is very tricky for Apple to sell. In their advertising, they sell, more than anything else, good feelings. They’re never going to say, “buy Apple because everyone else is out to exploit you,” — that makes technology scary and not the betterment of the human condition that Apple sells.

But to the tech press, and to organizations fighting for your privacy, Apple is becoming steadily more vocal. It feels a wee bit disingenuous; Apple wants those other mouths to spread the fear. But it’s a valid fear, and one that more people should be talking about.

From where I sit in my cubicle, completely removed from any strategic discussion, if you were to address Apple’s stand on privacy from a marketing standpoint, it would seem our favorite fruit-flavored gadget company is banking on one of two things: Than people will begin to put a dollar value on their privacy, or that the government will mandate stronger privacy protection and Apple will be ahead of the pack.

Ah, hahaha! The second of those is clearly ridiculous. The government long ago established itself as the enemy of privacy. But what about the first of those ideas? Will people pay an extra hundred bucks on a phone to not have their data harvested? Or will they shrug and say “If my phone doesn’t harvest that information, something else will.”

Honestly, I don’t think it’s likely that Apple will ever make a lot of money by standing up for privacy. It may even be a losing proposition, as HomeKit and ApplePay are slowed in their adaptation because they are encumbered by onerous privacy protection requirements. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe Apple is already making piles of cash as the Guardians of Privacy. But I suspect not.

So why does Apple do it? I don’t know. I’m not part of those conversations. But I do know this: If you were to ask CEO Tim Cook that question, he’d look at you like you’d grown a second head and say, “Because it’s the right thing to do.” Maybe I’m being a homer here, but I really believe Tim when he says stuff like that. Tim has told the shareholders to back off more than once, in defense of doing the right thing.

And as long as Tim is in charge of this company, “Because it’s the right thing to do” will float for me. So as long as Tim’s in charge, I know Apple will continue to respect the privacy of its customers. Maybe to you that’s not such a big deal, but it is to me. I won’t work for anyone I don’t respect.

2 thoughts on “Apple, Machine Learning, and Privacy

  1. One of the markets Apple competes in is the market for tech employees in competitive regions, such as the Bay Area. Perhaps that’s the audience for this decision, with you as one data point. Bezos spouts the same stuff, and has a huge influence on his employees, but I personally think he’s a closet psychopath. And the most exploitative company on the planet in this field is the “first, do no evil” folks … they are no longer walking the original talk, if they ever did.

    • Recruiting is definitely a factor – the top AI talent doesn’t want to work somewhere where their access to data is hampered. Some of this “we can get data without being evil” is simply telling them “we can get data”.

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