Apple says privacy is a ‘core value.’ Tim Cook shouldn’t compromise it to bridge the gap on AI

For years, Apple has positioned itself as a champion of consumer privacy, setting itself apart from its tech industry peers Google and Facebook and their ad-based business models that rely on siphoning up as much user data as possible.

“Privacy is a fundamental human right,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said last year, repeating a mantra he has made a central part of Apple’s marketing strategy.

But Apple’s privacy reputation is starting to show some major cracks—due to mounting revelations about its lucrative relationship with Google, which has been called the pioneer of surveillance capitalism.”

The U.S. government’s antitrust lawsuit against Google has produced some eye-popping numbers. According to recently unsealed court documents from the trial, Google paid Apple $20 billion in 2022 to make Google the default search engine on its Safari web browser. That’s up from a reported $18 billion payment in 2021. A Google witness at the trial testified that Google pays Apple 36% of the revenue it earns from search ads on Safari.

The details of these transactions, which both companies had taken pains to keep secret, do much to undermine Apple’s rhetoric about being a defender of user privacy. They lay bare how Apple, a company that calls privacy a “core value,” has been profiting handsomely from Google, known for its voracious collection of personal data. (Google says it does its best to protect user data.)

Far from seeking to distance itself from Google in the wake of these revelations, Apple appears to be open to expanding the relationship. According to Bloomberg News, Apple has held negotiations to use Google’s Gemini generative AI tools to power new features on the iPhone. The latest reports indicate Apple may be close to a deal with OpenAI but is still talking with Google. Apple is lagging behind other tech industry players in developing generative AI, and such a deal would be a quick way for the company to leapfrog ahead with the technology.

However, an AI partnership with Google would raise yet more questions about Apple’s commitment to privacy. A recent investigation by the New York Times revealed that Google quietly revised its privacy policy last year in an apparent effort to expand the amount of user data available to train its generative AI models—and released the new language on the July 4 weekend to minimize scrutiny of the changes. By tapping into Google’s Gemini for the iPhone, Apple would be associating itself with these tactics.

Whomever Apple ends up partnering with on AI, the company must be transparent with its users about where their data will go and how it will be used. Apple forged its privacy reputation in 2016 during its high-profile standoff with the FBI over an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino mass shooters. Apple famously refused the FBI’s request to unlock the device, warning it would create a “master key” that would break encryption and put the privacy and security of millions of Americans at risk. Cook called the case a “civil liberties” issue, putting privacy at the forefront of Apple’s corporate brand.

In the years since, Apple has taken important steps to protect privacy, including features that require apps to get explicit permission from users to track their behavior and allow users to turn on end-to-end encryption for their messages and other data stored in Apple’s iCloud. But Apple’s deep entanglement with Google casts a large and growing shadow over the company’s claims to be a privacy savior.

The fact that Apple is financially benefitting—to the tune of billions of dollars—from Google’s privacy-invasive search engine makes Apple marketing slogans like “What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone” ring hollow. It also adds a distinct odor of hypocrisy to Cook’s frequent jabs at tech industry rivals over their data-hungry ways. At one 2015 event, where the Apple CEO was feted as a “Champion of Freedom” by a privacy advocacy group, Cook took aim at companies that are “gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it,” adding that “it’s not the kind of company that Apple wants to be.”

Apple’s defense of the Google search deal basically boils down to: It’s not perfect, but there’s no other option. Testifying at the Google antitrust trial, Apple executive Eddy Cue, who negotiated the latest version of the search deal, said there “wasn’t a valid alternative” to Google. In a 2018 interview, Cook said Google’s search engine is “the best” and talked up Apple’s privacy settings for web browsing.

These comments suggest that Apple had no choice but to partner with Google. However, it is important to note that Apple’s relationship with Google goes beyond the search deal. Tech publication The Information reported in 2021 that Apple was the largest corporate client of Google’s cloud storage service. According to the report, Apple “dramatically increased” the amount of user data it stored in Google’s cloud that year and was poised to boost its spending on the service by 50%. The latest reports about Apple’s negotiations with Google over a potential AI deal suggest that Apple is willing to take the partnership even further. Apple’s customers deserve to know more about how the company’s dealings with Google affect the privacy of their data, particularly in light of Apple’s heavy marketing of itself as a privacy-minded corporation. It is clear that regulators are no longer taking Apple’s privacy promises at face value. The Justice Department’s antitrust lawsuit against Apple, filed in March, observes that Apple “selectively compromises privacy and security interests when doing so is in Apple’s own financial interest,” giving the Apple-Google search deal as a prime example.

Katie Paul is the director of the Tech Transparency Project.

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