08 March 2021

The Washington Post: “I checked Apple’s new privacy ‘nutrition labels’. Many were false”

Apple only lets you access iPhone apps through its own App Store, which it says keeps everything safe. It appeared to bolster that idea when it announced in 2020 that it would ask app makers to fill out what are essentially privacy nutrition labels. Just like packaged food has to disclose how much sugar it contains, apps would have to disclose in clear terms how they gobble your data. The labels appear in boxes toward the bottom of app listings. (Click here for my guide on how to read privacy nutrition labels.)

But after I studied the labels, the App Store is now a product I trust less to protect us. In some ways, Apple uses a narrow definition of privacy that benefits Apple — which has its own profit motivations — more than it benefits us.

Apple’s big privacy product is built on a shaky foundation: the honor system. In tiny print on the detail page of each app label, Apple says, “This information has not been verified by Apple.”

Geoffrey A. Fowler

As several times before, the privacy and safety promises of Apple’s App Store reveal quite a few holes under closer scrutiny. In this case, the information presented by app developers in privacy nutrition labels is apparently not double-checked by Apple in the app review process. Nor does Apple have any way to verify if apps share user data with third parties such as Google and Facebook once that data leaves the device. Apple’s main interest is using ‘privacy’ as bullet-proof marketing against rival tech giants and the ad industry, as a method to position the iPhone ecosystem as ‘exclusive’ and justify its price premium.

iOS 14 app privacy nutritionlabels

Louis Brandeis, the former Supreme Court justice and namesake of the New Brandeis school of anti-trust law scholarship defined privacy in his seminal Harvard Law review paper, The Right to Privacy, as the “principle of an inviolate personality”: a concept that extends the protections of property rights to intellectual and emotional well-being but that isn’t yoked to any pecuniary standards of damages or harm. Simply put, Louis Brandeis described privacy as the “right to be let alone”.

What the above screenshot showcases is that Apple has defined “privacy” in a very specific way, with a standard that is only applied to its competitors. Apple can use the gentle, pacifying framing of “personalized ads” because it “does not track” users by the arbitrary definition of “tracking” that Apple has conjured out of thin air.

Eric Benjamin Seufert

While on this topic, I’m deeply uncomfortable with the concept of privacy as a luxury, as repeated ad nauseam by Scott Galloway in his articles and podcasts. It is wrong for society when access to better privacy controls is predicated on buying certain more expensive products, thereby creating more division and reinforcing an implicit class system. This is one of the reasons privacy should be regulated by central authorities to provide a level playing field for both citizens/consumers and businesses. Leaving privacy decisions at the mercy of corporations leads to a whole range of negative outcomes, as we discovered over the years.

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