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Why privacy still comes second for tech firms

A phone buzzing with an alarm reading "privacy" with a snooze button beneath.
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

While tech firms talk more about protecting personal information than they once did, a pair of recent controversies highlight the industry's longstanding habit of prioritizing convenience and new features over users' privacy.

Driving the news: Zoom, the popular video conferencing service, confirmed a researcher's finding that it installs a hidden Web server on Macs, speeding up the process for launching a video chat. Rather than apologize, the company initially defended the decision in a blog post, though it largely reversed course after significant outcry.

  • E-mail program Superhuman won buzz for its powerful features, including reports not only on whether recipients opened messages, but also where, and how many times. Then it drew criticism and outrage for the way these features turned email into a kind of surveillance technology. The company later said it would remove the location tracking (and delete existing data) and turn the "read status" feature off by default.

Why it matters: Zoom prioritized one-click convenience. Superhuman prioritized wowing users. Privacy came in a distant second.

Our thought bubble: Privacy feels like an afterthought in tech because historically that is almost always what it's been. Our digital world, from the web to Facebook to our phones' wireless networks, was designed and built as a generator of connections between people, first and foremost.

  • By the time we started questioning how much privacy we'd given up along the way, an entire powerful industry had grown dependent on that deal. Trying to undo it may be a Sisyphean task.

Yes, but: Privacy is beginning to show up not just in tech firms' talking points but in their product decisions. Apple, of course, has tried to make privacy a selling point. But even Google and Facebook, which offer free services in exchange for personal data that targets ads, have made recent privacy-oriented product decisions.

  • At its annual developer conference, Apple unveiled a new social sign-in option that strictly limits how much information is shared with Web publishers and app developers.
  • Facebook chose not to offer the ability to record video on its first Portal video chat devices, in part to ease concerns over how the cameras might be used.
  • Google chose not to include a camera at all on its first Home Hub in order to make people feel comfortable putting the device in their bedroom.

However, neither Facebook nor Google has fundamentally changed its tune. Google added a new Hub Max model this year that does have a camera, with Google pitching it as designed for shared spaces like living rooms and kitchens. At the Code Conference, Facebook hinted that new models of the Portal are coming, too, possibly with broader functionality than the original device.

The bottom line: Tech companies are making small changes in response to controversies in the media, but they're unlikely to radically alter their approach to privacy unless users demand it — and express their preference in their purchasing and usage choices.

Go deeper: Special report: Inside the mass invasion of your privacy