What You Pay to Google

I do it too. I use Google’s “free” services. But they’re not free. Google makes a shit-ton of money off me. Consider this list of things The Goog knows about me:

name, age, blah blah blah – tragically that is already forfeit
thousands of web sites I’ve visited
thousands of searches I’ve done (yeah, those searches)
the full content of thousands of emails I’ve sent or received. I don’t use my gmail account, but any time I send a letter to a gmail address my words are duly noted. Every word that goes through gmail is archived.
Almost every purchase I’ve made online
Every purchase I’ve made in stores using Google wallet (which are none, because that is my pathetic line in the sand.)

Google, along with all tech companies, has to reveal what they collect about you if they want to do business in Europe. But here’s the thing: While I can get a full accounting of activity on my Google account, I can find no way to see, and delete, the data collected about me while I’m not actively logged into g-whatever. Which is most of my life.

I use Duck-Duck-Go for searching now, which is better anyway if you want to refine your search with + or -. I have not put a full embargo on gmail addresses, but it’s tempting. Somehow they have the right to read the communications of someone who has never entered into any sort of agreement with them. (I am not such a person, but they must exist.)

Google must hate Facebook for getting caught harvesting shit that is none of their business so often. If it weren’t for Facebook’s ineptitude, Google might still live in an unregulated world. As it is, they are doing their damndest to obey the letter of the law while still collecting “anonymous” data they are not responsible for revealing. It is not anonymous. If it were, it would have no value.

Screw those guys.

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.