Essays on Technology and Culture

The Privacy of Luxury

Rich Mogull, over at Macworld, wrote a great piece about how Apple actually cares about users privacy. It's a great read, and Rich pulls together a few solid facts to support a theory I've had for a while about trusting my data to Apple. Namely, that Apple doesn't make any money from selling me out (iAds excluded). They're making enough money on hardware that services like iCloud can be included gratis, without paying in data.

It's also worrisome. Apple is very much a luxury brand. The Apple Tax is a real thing, and even with the recent price drop on the 11" MacBook Air, you can get a full-featured Windows laptop for less, with a bigger screen. While the security conscious smartphone Blackphone may not occupy a luxury niche, and is a bit rough around the edges, it's not available through any carrier with a subsidy. This means a privacy-minded user would have to cough up $629 minimum for a secure phone.

In other words, if you're cost conscious, you can't afford to be privacy conscious.

Competing with free is always a difficult proposition. You can push on the privacy aspects like with Microsoft's “Scroogled” campaign, but that $0 price tag is so awfully tempting. People will sign on that dotted line without a care in the world what they're giving up, so long as it's free. Google and Facebook are masters of consumer psychology in that regard, offering compelling, quality web services for the price of data. Which, if you understand the Faustian bargain you're getting into, isn't so bad.

We already know, however, that most people don't know. Or, if they do, they don't bother to do anything to limit access. Part of why Windows PCs are often so much cheaper than comparable Apple hardware is not just cheaper components and volume pricing, but because they often come pre-loaded with privacy killing crapware that hardware manufacturers are paid for. Short of reinstalling the operating system as the first step in setting up a new machine, there's little that can be done to stop this practice.

I worry that we're heading for a new class divide in technology, where the poor, the cost-conscious, or the apathetic are surrendering more than they think. Meanwhile, those of us in our high-price luxury computing world—centered around Apple—can avoid the privacy crushing juggernauts. Are Apple users going to be the digital Eloi to an Internet of Morlocks? Not any time soon. There's enough Apple users who happily tie into Google's web services (author included) that it's not going to change overnight. But Apple making the slightly more privacy conscious Bing the default search in Yosemite and iOS 8—and adding the private search engine DuckDuckGo as an option could be the start of a trend.