It’s not infrequent these days if you’re a big tech company to receive a brusquely worded letter from a group of Senators or Representatives asking you to explain yourself on some topic or another. One recent such letter sent to Apple and Alphabet asks specifically about practices meant to track users or their interactions with the phone without their knowledge or consent. Luckily Apple has much to be proud of on that front.
“Apple’s philosophy and approach to customer data differs from many other companies on these important issue,” preened Timothy Powderly, Apple’s director of federal government affairs, in the company’s response to the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s questions.
“We believe privacy is a fundamental human right and purposely design our products and services to minimize our collection of customer data,” he goes on. “The customer is not our product, and our business model does not depend on collecting vast amounts of personally identifiable information to enrich targeted profiles marketed to advertisers.”
To whom could Powderly be referring?
The Committee’s questions were perhaps spurred by reports of unwanted collection of audio data from the likes of Amazon Echos and other devices that listen eagerly for the magic words that set them to work. So the actual queries were along the lines of: when a phone has no SIM card, what kind of location data is collected; whom does that data go to and for what purpose; does the device listen when it has not been “invoked”; and so on.
Apple’s responses, which you can read here (thanks CNET), are blessedly free of the kind of half-answers that usually indicate some kind of shenanigans.
The answers to most questions are that users who have Location Services enabled on the phone will collect data depending on what wireless options are selected, and that data is sent to Apple in anonymous and encrypted form… and “this anonymous data is not used to target advertising to the user.”
iPhones only listen in with a short buffer for the “Hey Siri” wake-up call, and queries to the virtual assistant are not shared with third parties.
“Unlike other similar services, which associate and store historical voice utterances in identifiable form,” the answer goes on, throwing shade all the while, “Siri utterances, which include the audio trigger and the remainder of the Siri command, are tied to a random device identifier, not a user’s Apple ID.” This identifier can be reset at any time (turn Siri and Dictation off and on again) and any data associated with it will disappear as well.
Apple has its flaws, but its privacy settings are thankfully not among them. It’s true what it says: it’s not a data-monger like Google or Facebook, and has no need to personally profile its users the way Amazon does. It may sell increasingly iffy hardware at truly eye-popping prices, and it may have lost its design edge (been a while now), but at least it isn’t, in this sense at least, evil by nature.