A small step for privacy

Beginning next month when Apple rolls out its new iOS 14 for the iPhone and iPad, users will have a chance to opt out of being tracked. This is a major benefit that few companies have dared to offer. The question you’ll be ask will be something like:

 “Do you want this app to follow you around the internet, tracking your behavior?”

Rarely have we been given such a simple way to prevent our being tracked.

Usually we have to accept the terms of services that are multiple pages of tiny text that no one reads. And often, if we refuse, we’re unable to use the app or the product.

It would seem obvious that a request to opt in to being tracked is the right way to do business. Ask for permission. But every company knows if we’re asked, we’d say no.

Pushback on Facebook

Apple’s move will have a big effect on the digital advertisers, particularly Facebook, that depends on tracking us to sell advertising. Advertisers pay Facebook to identify and target an audience that’s most receptive to their products, and if we don’t allow Facebook to see what we’re doing, we become less valuable to them.

We could say much the same about Google, but Google is a little more transparent and offers ways to reduce their intrusions, as well as offering us some valuable products in trade such as Google Maps and Gmail.

Facebook, on the other hand, is unique in its abhorent behavior with respect to most everything it does. It uses our profiles, not only to dish up ads, but connect us with others with like-minded interests. Just last night, Facebook was used to organize a right-wing militia group in Kenosha, WI, leading to a shooting by a militia member that killed two and injured a third. Several hours earlier several Facebook members notified Facebook of this activity, and Facebook said it did not violate their rules. Once the shooting became public, they then removed the group’s Facebook page.

Facebook is pervasive

When readers of my newspaper column a few years ago proudly responded to my criticism of Facebook tracking us, noting that they don’t have that problem because they don’t have an account. Little did they know that Facebook was accessing the contacts of their friends who did belong, and they were being tracked, as well. In fact, every time you use Facebook to sign into a website, that adds to an individual’s dossier Facebook sells or rents.

That’s the reason Neil Young removed the commonly used Facebook logins from his popular archives site. It took months of work and a lot of software development to move over the tens of thousands subscribers as seamlessly as possible. I know because I oversaw the work. While it was hard work with lots of hand-holding of the loyal subscribers, the response was overwhelmingly positive.

There are other models

While you’ll hear that targeted advertising benefits us by allowing us to access services that are free, I would urge them to find an alternative model. I’d rather pay not to be tracked or allow those that track me to pay me. A proper business transaction is where the buyer knows what they are paying for in exchange for what they are getting. And that transparency rarely exists in this arena.

Apple has taken a marketing position of putting value on our privacy. A cynic could say that it’s because Apple’s business is hardware, not advertising.  But whatever the reason, I support their efforts and hope they succeed wildly and others follow.  Apple is in a unique position to challenge Facebook, like few others, and we should applaud them for it.

What’s next?

Today, there are data mining companies developing new ways to use our personal data, well beyond just sending us ads or encouraging us to join a group. One area of intense activity is exploiting dynamic pricing, meaning varying pricing based on your own personal profile. While airlines now price their tickets using algorithms based on available seats and how close to flight time, nothing other than ethics would stop them from charging based on your willingness or ability to pay. And don’t count on ethics to get in the way of airlines.

Most of us don’t like to be tracked. It’s creepy when you browse on Zappo for shoes and start seeing  ads from a shoe company. While it’s efficient for the advertiser, and maybe even for the shopper, we should make that decision for ourselves and not allow others to essentially look over our shoulder, access our keystrokes, listen to our microphones, and watch us through our cameras.

So thank Apple for making a small, but important step in giving us the decision about sharing our data. Unfortunately, it’s probably just a pebble compared to the Grand Canyon.

by Phil Baker