Apple’s Privacy is a Feature, Not a Hangup

| Editorial

Google Photos organizes my photos magically in the background. It delights me that it’s somehow able to recognize my child from ages one to 15 as the same person through facial recognition software. It now has 500 million monthly active users — presumably many on iOS.

Apple’s Photos app makes me tag hundreds of photos of the same person to group them instead of recognizing them. The reason is Apple is doing facial recognition on the device instead of in the server.

Now, I have used both Google Photos and Apple Photos.  At this year’s WWDC, Apple announced that its facial recognition in Photos will finally be synced across your devices. Sure, you have to do it manually, but like Apple Music, all you have to do is tap a Yes or No button. It’s not perfect, but it’s also not inconvenient.

Screenshot of facial recognition in iOS. This is important to Apple's privacy and our own.

Semi-automated facial recognition in iOS Photos. Is it me you’re looking for?

Netflix offers up personalization of your video interests. That’s been part of their DNA since the company was founded in the ’90s as a website: Apple’s yet-to-be offered streaming video service with great content from the two hotshot new ex-Sony TV executives will likely have no such personalization. You’ll probably see a top 10 list instead — but you’ll have better privacy.

Ah, here we finally get to the original premise of the article: Apple’s interest in creating videos. In my use of Netflix, it’s personalized suggestions to me are awful. I won’t bother comparing a real service to an imagined service. But if Apple does eventually create streaming video service, I can imagine that they would offer the same solution as Apple Music and Photos: tapping Love or Dislike on videos that you…love or dislike.

Let’s not forget the dedicated AI chip that Apple is working on. This chip will no doubt greatly improve the on-device machine learning your iPhone does. I’m no pundit, but it seems to me that Apple’s goal is for your iPhone to be a completely self-contained ecosystem, tailored to you. Combined with another announcement from WWDC that Siri’s knowledge of you will also be synced across devices, and you soon have services more tailored to you.

But that doesn’t mean you have to give up your privacy in order to have tailored services. Apple is working harder to make sure that you don’t have to give it up, with efforts like the AI chip and differential privacy. That, my friends, is the real Apple Tax. When you buy an iPhone, you’re buying (or maintaining) a private lifestyle.

Tally It Up

Apple can do this because it owns the hardware that these other services run on top of, as well as prioritizing itself as being customer-first (as any retailer should). The debate here seems to be cloud-based machine learning versus on-device machine learning. Spotify and Netflix don’t have hardware, and they aren’t going to hand Apple their algorithms and switch to on-device machine learning.

But even with cloud-based machine learning, it should still be possible to protect user privacy. The key difference here is that Spotify sells user data to advertisers. Google does too, even though it does own its own hardware. Netflix doesn’t display ads and as far as I can tell, doesn’t share user data.

So frankly, Mr. Johnson’s argument doesn’t make sense. Netflix can personalize without giving up user privacy (unless I’m mistaken). Spotify sells user data DESPITE having a paid subscription, and Google sells user data DESPITE having hardware and paid subscriptions like Google Music and YouTube Red. It’s because they prioritize advertisers over users.

If Apple decides to create a streaming video competitor to Netflix, there’s no reason why it can’t have a great service without selling its users. Besides differential privacy and on-device machine learning, all Apple needs to do is create a new section in iOS Settings (or streaming video settings like Netflix) called Interests. Customers can check boxes next to video categories they like, and algorithms can deliver exactly what Apple users want—all on the device, without worrying that their data will be sold to advertisers.

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Andrew OrrJamieJohn Kheit Recent comment authors

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This is why I stick with them, and will, as long as they continue this policy. I think most of the stuff the ‘new’ Apple is doing (it’s all stuff other companies have already tried, or attempts at becoming something they will just never be) is poop, but the products I do like are terrific, and to the best of my knowledge, they are the only company their size taking this stance on privacy. Bravo, Apple.

John Kheit
John Kheit

“Privacy is a service”. Well said Andrew! Also, nice Article Liz!


You’re right, Andrew! Privacy IS a feature and why Apple will succeed. As I said in my recent interview in Israel National News, companies that continue to follow the ‘surveillance capitalism’ playbook will become data-sucking dinosaurs…