Friday 28 October 2016

Adrian Weckler: Giving unknown firms our data is a deal most of us freely make

Published 07/06/2015 | 02:30

Apple CEO Tim Cook criticised Google on the grounds that it was collecting too much information from users
Apple CEO Tim Cook criticised Google on the grounds that it was collecting too much information from users

How much do you trust 'cloud' companies with your personal or business information?

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Last week, Apple CEO Tim Cook tore Google a new one, suggesting that its bitter rival is pillaging our data for "God knows what".

"You might like these so-called free services," he said. "But we don't think they're worth having your email or your search history or now even your family photos data-mined and sold off for God knows what advertising purpose. And we think someday, customers will see this for what it is."

The photo reference was particularly pointed. Last week, Google launched a major new online service that gives unlimited free storage for photos and videos. The service, which has been positively reviewed, is likely to be a formidable weapon in Google's arsenal to fight Apple in the potentially huge online photo business.

But Tim was having none of it, choosing the high ground of privacy instead.

"Our privacy is being attacked on multiple fronts," he told a privacy conference. "I'm speaking to you from Silicon Valley, where some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information. They're gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetise it.

"We think that's wrong. And it's not the kind of company that Apple wants to be."

Is Cook's salvo just competitive jostling - or does he have a point about people giving up too much information about themselves and their business interests to Google?

The phrase 'if it's free, you are the product' has a lot of truth in it. Google is not giving away unlimited storage for your photos to be nice. It will use your photos, one way or another, to match up advertisers or other paying parties. Facebook is exactly the same. And Pinterest. Twitter would like to get to that point.

The real question is whether data exploitation remains a fair bargain. Are Google search, Gmail and Facebook things for which the benefit outweighs the privacy concern?

For most of us, the current answer is yes. I know that chunks of my profile, 'likes' and data-mined utterances on line are probably lined up as part of a series of algorithms that will be used by Coca-Cola or Nestle or Aviva or whoever.

Right now, it's a price I'm willing to pay. Not everyone feels this way. There are some who refuse to use social media or search engines without encryption or other masking apparatus.

And in Europe, legislators are taking some measures to reign big web companies in. There's the controversial 'right to be forgotten' law introduced by the European Court Of Justice last year. There are mounting investigations into big firms, particularly Google. And some national data-protection authorities are starting to crack down in a series of decisions, too.

So Cook is not alone in his righteous indignation.

Of course, a cynic might look at it another way. Google is turning out to be a heavyweight commercial opponent in Apple's nascent plans at growing its own cloud businesses. Giving away unlimited online photo storage - and effective online management software to organise it all - is a very powerful offering. It is all the more daunting when allied with Google's scarcely rivalled ability to make money out of collecting data from free services. (Only Facebook matches Google's nous in this area.)

Left unchallenged, Google and Facebook (which also owns Instagram) could run away with the business of online pictures. And that is a potentially huge business that Apple won't want to cede.

There is also the matter of Apple's own sensitivities around online privacy. It is still smarting from the hack that exposed hundreds of nude celebrity photos from their Apple iCloud accounts. But to be fair, that was a security breach.

Cook's point is that Google and Facebook (and others) set up their businesses to trade off your data. Sometime down the line, that could result in a fright at how our personal information is collected by organisations or agencies we didn't know were watching us.

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