Apple’s Hidden Privacy Agenda

Is Apple being reckless?

One observation that some Apple pundits like throwing around is that Apple tends to add features with a broader future implementation in mind. For example, Apple added TouchID initially for unlocking your phone only. Then after a year or two, they added Apple Pay.

Although I think it would be wrong to expect Apple to be doing this for every feature, I do consider it very helpful to keep this in mind. That is, do not dismiss their actions unless you have throughly considered the possibility of a hidden agenda that will only reveal itself a few years into the future.

Apple’s stance on privacy is one of these actions.

  1. Most people have commented that Apple’s focus on privacy will strongly hinder, maybe even cripple their artificial intelligence efforts. This is very dangerous for Apple’s future because it is predicted that artificial intelligence will be a huge part of future personal computing.
  2. The plus side of a privacy focus is that it becomes a selling point for their products. However, we also know that today’s consumers do not care too much about privacy; at least, they seem to be happy to post photos on Facebook and search on Google.

Taking the two points above, it would seem reckless for any tech company to take the privacy position that Apple is holding today. The demerits are huge while the merits look benign. It looks like a totally irrational move for Apple that maybe enforced only because of Tim Cook’s personal beliefs in human rights. It does not make any sense, that is unless Apple has a larger agenda for the future; an agenda in which privacy plays an essential role.

Looking at Apple’s future markets

As I have mentioned previously, Apple cannot grow significantly larger than it is today without expanding into markets outside of tech. The market that tech can directly address, the market to which Apple can sell its current devices, is limited by the size of the economies in the countries which it sells to, and the amount of money each household is willing to spend on communications and entertainment. Apple has to move into different household buckets of spending. Furthermore, these buckets have to be large enough to drive revenue that can significantly contribute to Apple’s huge earnings.

Looking at what households actually spend their money on, one obvious contender is health. US households spend a huge proportion of their income on health, and for the countries which have an adequate healthcare system in place, health is a huge proportion of their government expenditure. There is a lot of money in health, and as populations in both developed and developing countries age, it is only going to get larger.

Apple is already actively involved in health. Not only does Apple have HealthKit, it also has ResearchKit which allows researchers to easily conduct large studies on patients and CareKit which allows patients to track and manage their own medical conditions. Importantly, privacy of health information is taken very seriously (unlike web history or location tracking data), and although I am no expert, it seems that there are rules and laws even in the USA for this.

For any company that seriously wants to get into health, data privacy is a hugely important issue. In particular, IT giants like Google or Apple will be held to higher standards, and expected to develop the necessary technologies if not yet available. They will be scrutinised by not only the authorities, but also by the regular press. If Apple wants to go further into health, prove the value of their services, and to extract revenue from this huge market, then they have to get the privacy issues sorted out first, and apply leading edge technology to protect patient privacy. This will be the prerequisite.

This is where I find Apple’s hidden privacy agenda. Apple does not need to have strict privacy to compete in the tech world against Google and Amazon. In fact, its privacy stance is detrimental for cutting edge artificial intelligence since server hardware will always be much more powerful than tiny smartphones for machine learning, and differential privacy will always negatively impact what patterns can be observed. However, to impact some key non-tech markets that Apple needs to venture into, privacy will be important and essential. Apple’s stance on privacy should be viewed not by which markets they are selling now, but on which markets they intend to sell to in the future.

  • obarthelemy

    Agreed.

    I’m a bit pressed for time, but it would be interesting to look at how HP and Agilent fared after their split, and try to extrapolate that to Apple.

  • Kenny

    this post make no sense at all for many reason

    1- the Health care is system is extremely complex and complicate to succeed there Apple would have to create a totally independent company with totally independent culture and structure to navigate all the complexity as Google as done with Verily and Deepmind health initiative and IBM with Watson

    2- The need in the medical field are more towards the creation of Tools, applications, and cloud system to better organize medical information and provides a quality care service while reducing complexities and costs, Apple have no history no track record to speak not even the capability to accomplish this things

    3- Data protection, Data security, Data management and electronic data record are more important in the Health care system than privacy, Apple aren’t good in any of these area compare to other in the field.

    4 – Apple privacy stand as nothing to do with Health care or any future business it’s a PR spin

    • You are making a huge number of assumptions here.

      Yes, health care is complex. However, Olympus for example (which was originally a camera maker) did not have to create an independent company to break into the market. The same can be said for GE, which also has a very successfully medical devices branch.

      Needs in the medical field are not necessarily restricted to to organising medical information. That is like saying in the 1960s that the needs for computing was only for simulating nuclear weapons or cryptography.

      Privacy is equally important as data protection. Please read the article that I linked to.

      Assuming that Apple’s privacy stance is solely for PR purposes misses the fact that the general public do not yet take privacy seriously, as demonstrated by their willingness to post private photos on Facebook. If you assume that Apple’s privacy is solely for PR purposes, then you have to conclude that it is a bad decision based on current market trends.

      • Kenny

        my response was in context to Apple which is a huge corporation, that rely on High end very expensive device to make money, Apple is not a solution provider nor a general purpose device maker which are the two most important factor in health care industry

        HealthKit, as nothing to do with health is about fitness
        ResearchKit is Apple working with a Health care firm to help them gathering some health data fitness

        You keep saying that users do not take Privacy seriously which I think is non sense.

        When it comes to the relationship with users and a company such as Google everything is about trust. You’re either trust Facebook or Google with your Data or you don’t there is no in between.

        when it comes to privacy it’s not that user are not aware of the risk of posting their pictures on Facebook must mature user do, the issue as always been the upside of posting your picture on Facebook to share a moment with your friends get some like and attention is higher than the downside of losing your privacy for the majority of them.

        Again privacy is not a hot topic issue in the Health Care industry because of the regulation and the potential for lawsuit and even criminal charge the most pressing issue in the Health industry is Data protection, Data security, Data management and electronic data record these are the area where the real difference can be made