Big Tech: the battle for our data
The most important sector of tech is user privacy and with it comes a war not fought in the skies or trenches but in congressional hearings and slanderous advertisements, this battle fought in the shadows for your data and attention is now coming to light.
The ever-growing reliance we have on technology has boomed since the advent of social media, especially and specifically with phones. Just 15 years ago, the favoured way of accessing services like Facebook was through a computer but this changed at a radical pace following the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 and the opening of the iOS App Store in 2008.
Since then, the app economy now in its teens has become a multi-billion dollar industry built on technologies founded in behavioural change and habit forming psychology.
If you don’t have the iPhone’s ‘Screen Time’ feature set up, you’ll want to do that after hearing this:
According to various studies a typical person spends over four hours a day on their phone, with almost half of that time taken up by social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. These studies were conducted before the pandemic so it wouldn’t be far stretched to assume these figures have gone up.
So what happens with all this time spent on these platforms?
Your time is your attention, your attention is their data
Where advertisements of old for businesses and products relied on creativity and market research on platforms like television and newspapers, modern advertising takes advantage of your online behaviour and interests to accurately target tailored advertisements to users.
User data collected by Facebook is used to create targeted advertisements for all kinds of products, businesses and services. They use information like your search history, previous purchases, location data and even collect identifying information across apps and websites owned by other companies to build a profile that’s used to advertise things to you. In a recent update to iOS, Apple’s App Store now requires developers to outline to users what data is tracked and collected in what they are calling ‘privacy nutrition labels’.
In response to this in Facebook’s most recent quarterly earnings call, Mark Zuckerberg stated “We have a lot of competitors who make claims about privacy that are often misleading,” and “Now Apple recently released so-called (privacy) nutrition labels, which focused largely on metadata that apps collect rather than the privacy and security of people’s actual messages,”.
Facebook uses this meta-data to sell highly targeted ad space.
This is how you pay for ‘free’ services, with your data and attention
The harvesting of user data on platforms like Facebook has not only benefited corporations in ‘Big Tech’ and smaller business but has even been grossly abused by politicians to manipulate outcomes of major political events.
In 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal emerged into the forefront of mainstream media after a whistleblower for the company, Christopher Wylie came forward with information that outlined the unethical use of Facebook user data to create highly targeted advertisements with the goal of swaying political agendas. Most notably, illicitly obtained data was used in former US President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign in the United States, as well as the Leave. EU and UK Independence campaigns in support of BREXIT in the United Kingdom and his is just the tip of the iceberg.
This is the level of gross manipulation of data Apple is taking a stand against.
“The fact is that an interconnected eco-system of companies and data-brokers; of purveyors of fake news and peddlers of division; of trackers and hucksters just trying to make a quick buck, is more present in our lives than it has ever been.” — Tim Cook on Privacy, 2021
What we have here are two titans of industry with massive amounts of influence and responsibility at war.
On one hand, you have Facebook who has time and time again been grilled in public forums for data harvesting of their 2.6 billion monthly active users, shadow profiles (data collected on non-Facebook users), and social media bias, and then, on the other hand, you have Apple, who have 1.5 billion active devices running iOS across iPhone and iPad, all of which are ‘tools’ that demand attention with constant notifications and habit forming user experience design.
Apple has been scrutinised in the past for its App Store policy and are currently fighting an anti-trust lawsuit filed by Epic Games over the removal of Fortnite from the App Store for violating its policies on in-app purchases. Facebook stated in December of 2020, that the company will support Epic Games’ case and is also now reportedly readying an antitrust lawsuit of its own against Apple for forcing third-party developers to follow rules that first-party apps don’t have to follow.
Zuckerberg stated in the earnings call that “Apple has every incentive to use their dominant platform position to interfere with how our apps and other apps work, which they regularly do to preference their own. And this impacts the growth of millions of businesses around the world.” and “we believe Apple is behaving anti-competitively by using their control of the App Store to benefit their bottom line at the expense of app developers and small businesses”. This is an attempt by Zuckerberg to show that Apple is using their control of the App Store to stifle the growth of small businesses but our right to know how our own data is being used should stand paramount, even if its at the expense of business growth.
Apple’s position on privacy protection ‘for the people’ and introduction of privacy ‘nutrition labelling’ is not one that just benefits users, but is one that benefits and upholds trust in the company and its products. The choices the company makes in its industries tend to form and dictate how and where the market will go. You only have to look at its previous trends in product and packaging design to see what argument I’m trying to make.
With growing concern and mainstream awareness of data use, privacy is now at the forefront of consumer trends. Just look at the emergence of VPN companies in the last couple of years. Apple’s stance on giving privacy back to the user could set a new trend into motion across the industry and usher in an age of privacy-first design.
Author: Morgan Fox