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2 Key Features Highlight Privacy By Design In Apple iOS 10. Will Other Companies Follow?

Apple Inc. logo Last week, Apple Computer announced both separately and at the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) many new features in iOS 10. You can read about the new features in several computing and technology publications. Today's blog post focuses upon two features with far-reaching implications: On-device Intelligence and Differential Privacy (DP). Apple said in its announcement:

"Privacy in iOS 10
Security and privacy are fundamental to the design of Apple hardware, software and services. iMessage, FaceTime and HomeKit use end-to-end encryption to protect your data by making it unreadable by Apple and others. iOS 10 uses on-device intelligence to identify the people, objects and scenes in Photos, and power QuickType suggestions. Services like Siri, Maps and News send data to Apple’s servers, but this data is not used to build user profiles.

Starting with iOS 10, Apple is using technology called Differential Privacy to help discover the usage patterns of a large number of users without compromising individual privacy. In iOS 10, this technology will help improve QuickType and emoji suggestions, Spotlight deep link suggestions and Lookup Hints in Notes."

This is great news. The Cryptography Engineering blog briefly discussed Differential Privacy and what's known from the iOS 10 Preview Guide:

"Starting with iOS 10, Apple is using Differential Privacy technology to help discover the usage patterns of a large number of users without compromising individual privacy. To obscure an individual’s identity, Differential Privacy adds mathematical noise to a small sample of the individual’s usage pattern. As more people share the same pattern, general patterns begin to emerge, which can inform and enhance the user experience. In iOS 10, this technology will help improve QuickType and emoji suggestions, Spotlight deep link suggestions and Lookup Hints in Notes"

The Naked Security blog by Sophos reported:

"At WWDC, Apple’s Craig Federighi said Apple can offer “great features and great privacy” through differential privacy. Differential privacy is actually statistical analysis that protects individual privacy, rather than a single technology. In its implementation, Apple will protect obscure data with multiple techniques, including hashing (turning data into unreadable characters), subsampling (using data from only a portion of users) and noise injection (adding random data to obscure real data). Apple gave one of the most influential researchers in the field of differential privacy, Aaron Roth, a chance to review some of the math involved in its implementation, quoting Roth at WWDC as saying Apple is a “clear privacy leader among technology companies today.” But not everyone is fully convinced that Apple can pull off the promise of differential privacy, at least not right away..."

The Naked Security blog also discussed On-Device Intelligence:

"Instead of sending your data to Apple to create a personal profile of you with your information, Apple says the new versions of its operating systems – iOS 10 and the replacement for OS X, called macOS – will use on-device intelligence and “crowdsourced learning.” This means iPhones running iOS 10 can personalize your apps – like identify the people and objects in Photos, or serve you more relevant information in Maps and News – without sucking your data up to Apple’s servers."

Good! There are better, more privacy-friendly ways of delivering features. After reading this, I thought of Apple's privacy fight against the FBI'. The FBI had sued Apple to force it to build a back door to unlock a user's iPhone; and bypass security features the company spent years building. On-Device Intelligence means less information transmitted to and stored in the cloud and at remote corporate servers -- a good thing for users' privacy. That suggests a right way -- more privacy friendly way -- to build and deliver the features consumers want and expect. Plus, iOS 10's end-to-end encryption in iMessage, FaceTime and HomeKit all complement this security and privacy focus.

The marketplace is full of home automation, toys, smart products, appliances, thermostats, cable services, and music subscription offerings; many of which include voice interfaces and other features that happily send lots of consumers' information to the cloud. Most companies seem to chase and collect consumers' personal data. Kudos to Apple for placing its customers' privacy first.

You may remember this Reuters news item from March:

"Unlike Google, Amazon, and Facebook, Apple is loathe to use customer data to deliver targeted advertising or personalized recommendations. Indeed, any collection of Apple customer data requires sign-off from a committee of three "privacy czars" and a top executive, according to four former employees who worked on a variety of products that went through privacy vetting.

Approval is anything but automatic: products including the Siri voice-command feature and the recently scaled-back iAd advertising network were restricted over privacy concerns, these people said."

So, Apple isn't just talking security. The executives at Apple have aligned internal management processes, products, and service features all with security and privacy by design. Impressive. Apple is leaving money on the table by keeping consumers' privacy foremost. Will other tech companies follow? Will pay-TV, wireless, telecommunications, and mobile app companies focus upon privacy-by-design? Will toy companies follow and do voice interfaces the right way?

Thoughts? Comments?

Comments

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Chanson de Roland

Three cheers for Apple. But there are things that Apple can't control. First, are its developers, who may, in their apps but subject to Apple's restrictions and requirements for being on its App Store, collect more of our personal information that can be used to identify particular users and match those users' personal information with their identities. But Apple is doing the most that it can do, while still maintaining a viable ecosystem for its devices.

The other major problem is that all of the companies that depend on the collection of our personal information, which, notwithstanding their statements and highly qualified promises to the contrary, can be and is used to personally identify us, will not deploy the techniques of differential privacy in a good faith and effective way, because to do so will significantly diminish their revenues and profits, which they will not suffer. Marketers, political campaigns, advertisers, et al. don't pay for mere population stats but for precise information that knows or can predict what a person is about to do and/or provide personal information that can be matched to a particular person. The only thing that can make them do otherwise are laws that would be effectively enforced or people caring more about their privacy or both, yet neither of those things is likely.

And, yes, it is unlikely that consumers/users will suddenly begin to value their privacy more than convenience and often trivial services. People only begin to value their privacy when they know that the loss of it has harmed them. That does happen now but not to most, because even when consumers/users have been harmed by their loss of privacy, such as not getting a particular job or having to pay a higher interest rate or being duped into a bad deal, etc., they often don't know it and never learn of it, though they suffer the consequences nonetheless.

So kudos for Apple, because it gives those who do care about privacy a choice at least on their Apple devices and with Apple’s services, which we value, even if most won't.

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