What occurs on your iPhone does not always or necessarily remain there.
Even without a booth, Apple is a major presence at CES. Literally. “What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone,” reads a billboard affixed to the Springhill Suites Marriott hotel near the Las Vegas Strip late last week. Apple is promoting the privacy features built into the iPhone.
It is a clever and effective advertisement that parodies the famous Las Vegas slogan. Also, it is timely. In an era of frequent data breaches and terrifying hacks, privacy and security have become of paramount importance. Apple has emphasized privacy as a major selling point for the iPhone for years, so even though the advertisement doesn’t mention Google, Samsung, or Amazon, it’s clear that it’s a jab at Apple’s biggest competitors and their somewhat lax approach to privacy.
The claim on the billboard is certainly accurate for certain iPhone components. Maps require significantly fewer permissions than Google Maps to function properly. iMessages are end-to-end encrypted, unlike Google’s RCS-based chat. Siri requests are locally processed. Face ID is more secure than the majority of smartphone authentication methods. However, many, if not the majority, of people will not experience the locked-down privacy that Apple implies on the billboard.
While Apple’s hardware and services may be more secure than those of its competitors, the iPhone is not isolated from a larger universe of potential threats. So as soon as you download a third-party app from the App Store, your privacy is immediately compromised.
Apple may be able to claim that its iOS store is more secure than Google’s Play Store when it comes to malware, but there are still reports of iOS apps stealing iPhone users’ information. Facebook, Google, and Twitter are not magically more secure than they would be on an Android device.
Apple’s apps and servers are private and encrypted, but this is not the case for the countless apps you use to share your personal information. Whether we’re talking about bugs in Google+ or Facebook’s outright violations, what occurs within these iPhone apps does not remain private. And let’s not forget that Apple was involved in a massive hack of celebrity photos, the very type of data that is supposed to be protected.
The true message of Apple’s billboard is that the company respects your data more than its competitors. Apple promises never to sell your data, but contrary to popular belief, neither does Google, at least not directly. Apple does not eavesdrop on conversations. In addition, Safari will prompt you when a website attempts to access your cookies or other information. If you restrict your iPhone use to Apple apps and basic functions, then there is a very good chance that what you do on your iPhone will remain private. However, it is unrealistic to believe that everyone will live in an Apple universe.
Hear no evil and see no evil
As Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and other digital assistants become mainstream, privacy has become a pressing issue. Even with the launch of its first smart speaker, the HomePod, Apple has made it a priority to keep the data used by Siri private and personal, promising, “Whether you’re taking a photo, asking Siri a question, or getting directions, you can do so knowing that Apple does not sell your personal information to advertisers or other organizations.”
Therefore, when you invoke Siri to make a request, that information remains on your iPhone. Instead, it is anonymized and randomly generated as part of a differential privacy technique that enables Apple to analyze your data without knowing who you are. Even with physical switches to limit listening on their devices, Google and Amazon cannot make the same guarantee. Apple’s billboard, however, is not about Siri or even the HomePod; it’s about the iPhone as a whole. And if you want the type of locked-down privacy that Apple promotes, you’ll have to put in some effort.
Apple cannot make the same privacy guarantee regarding Alexa or Google Assistant on the iPhone. And the same holds for the remainder of Google’s app catalog. When you use any Google app or service on your iPhone — Maps, Assistant, Search, etc. — you consent to Google tracking your location. There is no longer a Do not track option in Chrome on the iPhone.
You can make your Google account as private as you like or disable location services for Google Maps on your iPhone to prevent it from tracking you. However, that is hardly the point, as it is possible to do so on any smartphone. Despite Apple’s commendable effort to make the iPhone’s default apps and services as private and personal as possible, Apple’s billboard can be interpreted to imply that everything you do on your iPhone is for your eyes only, which is simply not true.
The small print
The placement of Apple’s privacy billboard on the side of a Marriott hotel is somewhat appropriate. A few days ago, the company disclosed that over five million unencrypted passport numbers were stolen during the massive data breach that occurred last year. And guess what: if you made a reservation with Marriott using an iPhone, you face the same risk as someone who used an Android phone. Or does Apple not consider this an “iPhone event”?
I know what you’re thinking: this is a tongue-in-cheek billboard advertisement that is not meant to be taken literally. It may be true that cars can drive underwater or Siri can work in space, but even the most ludicrous advertisements contain warnings not to try this at home. Perhaps I simply cannot see it, but I do not observe such an asterisk on Apple’s new billboard.
And perhaps there should also be a great deal of fine print.