At its latest annual developer conference last month, Apple Inc. announced a suite of changes to its flagship mobile operating system that sent ripples through the data economy.
With the next version of iOS, customers will enjoy more ability to limit location tracking, by only giving apps their approximate location, pegged to a major intersection or a landmark in their city — not precise for an Uber pickup, but good enough for a weather app that doesn’t need your exact location to tell you whether it’ll rain later today.
Users who have installed the beta release of iOS 14 have also noticed a series of annoying privacy pop-ups, alerting users that all sorts of apps were quietly accessing the phone’s clipboard in the background for no obvious reason.
Apple will also start displaying a little dot in the status bar to show users when the phone’s microphone or camera is in use, which might be a comfort for people who are convinced companies are secretly listening to conversations to target ads at them.
In the other swath of the mobile phone ecosystem, Alphabet Inc.’s Android operating system has also been rolling out changes. On location, users will soon have more ability to limit apps tracking their movements by giving one-time permission for location access.
Android will now automatically revoke an app’s permission to access information such as location after a few months if you haven’t opened the app, which is supposed to prevent sketchy apps you’ve forgotten about from tracking you in the background.
Experts say the push to emphasize privacy is partly about marketing, but it’s also a canny business move that allows the technology giants to entrench their dominance.
“You could argue that some of this is being driven by the company’s perspective or feelings on privacy. Personally, I think that’s a bit rich,” said Neil Sweeny, founder and chief executive of Killi, a Toronto-based company that aims to pay consumers to monetize their data.
“I think part of it is a combination of making their own ecosystem slightly more powerful, but then also trying to get in front of some of the privacy regulations that are only growing in prominence.”
Sweeney said that privacy changes being pushed by Apple and Google are likely to kill the cottage industry of companies that do location tracking using smartphone data.
“To me, location is going to zero,” he said.
“Android is a follower whereas Apple is the leader. Apple has clearly made a decision to use privacy as a strategic differentiator. Whether that’s true or not is kind of irrelevant.”
To me, location is going to zero
Sweeny said another way to look at the steady march of privacy updates is that Apple and Google are slowly killing the business of many apps that helped build the smartphone ecosystem in the first place.
This represents a trend towards more consumer awareness about privacy trade-offs, and the sheer volume of data being collected by technology companies.
As Canadians celebrated Canada Day on Wednesday, tech companies in California marked the end of a six-month grace period on enforcement of the California Consumer Protection Act, which gives people more rights to opt out of data collection, and ask companies to delete their data.
Ryan O’Leary, an analyst with IDC Research who focuses on legal, compliance and risk issues, said that the California law, and future ballot measures anticipated later this year, are helping drive companies towards emphasizing privacy.
O’Leary was also dubious that the tech giants are making privacy changes for purely principled reasons.
“I think it’s much more of a business decision and a marketing decision,” he said.
“I think Google and Apple are kind of trying to become the preferred brands of people that are concerned about privacy, and they’re not trying to grow that ecosystem anymore. That ecosystem is there. So now that they have that market share, they’re trying to leverage it to become trusted and be these trusted tech companies.”
Sweeney said that the emphasis on privacy and control is extending well beyond just mobile phones. Google announced earlier this year that its Chrome browser will phase out third-party tracking cookies.
“Every website in the world, including the Financial Post, relies on a third-party cookie in order to do all this tracking and all of its advertising. What Google is doing is they’re eliminating the third-party cookie,” he said.
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“They’re going to say that’s because of privacy. That’s not true. They’re doing it to make people more dependent on the deterministic data inside of Google.”