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What Apple, Facebook and Google each mean by "privacy"

Illustration of a giant security camera watching a small person on their cell phone.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Apple, Facebook, and Google are all firmly on the record now: they agree that privacy is a good thing, that government should protect it, and that you can trust them to respect it.

The catch: Each company defines privacy differently and emphasizes different trade-offs in delivering it.

For Apple, privacy is primarily about keeping your personal data between you and your device.

  • Apple was making its case long before the recent wave of privacy scandals and data spills. It's built on the Mac's reputation for being more secure than Windows, and on strong device-level encryption that's built into most iPhones.
  • It also helps that the company's profits come mostly from selling hardware rather than selling ads, which are targeted based on user data.

Yes, but: Users don't even think about where their data is stored, and Apple's sales pitch may become increasingly irrelevant as the cloud becomes even fuzzier at the edges.

  • Many users backup their iOS devices to Apple's iCloud. While Apple doesn't normally access those backups, it will provide them to law enforcement with a court order.
  • Also, Apple has begun touting a shift to revenue from services, which will put it more in the same game that Facebook and Google play.

For Facebook, privacy chiefly means limiting who can see what you post or send.

  • Under CEO Mark Zuckerberg's new pivot to privacy, the social network is encouraging users to move their interactions from the "town square" of public profiles and pages to the "digital living room" of private groups.
  • It's also committed to encrypting each of its three messaging services — Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and the long-encrypted WhatsApp.

Yes, but: Facebook's approach to privacy barely acknowledges the complaint from users and critics that they're most concerned about how much Facebook itself knows and shares about them — and what they most want is privacy from Facebook.

  • Encryption only protects direct messaging, not posts shared in groups and on limited-access profiles.

Google is now emphasizing privacy as an option that you can invoke.

  • The search giant's new privacy agenda, unveiled this week, offers users a host of settings that allow users to limit or opt out of Google's collection and retention of personal data. It's also promising to limit advertisers' use of sensor data from Google's growing hardware lineup.
  • CEO Sundar Pichai is emphasizing that data collection is what makes Google's services useful — like when Google Maps knows where "home" is for you, or when aggregation of anonymous traffic data tells you how bad your commute is today.
  • According to Pichai, only "a small subset of data helps serve ads that are relevant and that provide the revenue that keeps Google products free and accessible," and "if receiving a customized ads experience isn’t helpful, you can turn it off."

Yes, but: Most users never bother to change default settings. And Google still collects a ton of data, which can be a concern for those worried about government overreach.

Between the lines: Each company is trying to differentiate itself both for customers and for regulators. Underneath the pro-privacy consensus, conflicts are simmering.

  • Last year Apple CEO Tim Cook criticized Facebook and vowed that Apple would not "traffic in your personal life."
  • Zuckerberg said the comment was "glib" and defended Facebook's data-driven ads, saying they fund services for people who can't afford to pay.
  • Meanwhile, when Pichai argues that "privacy cannot be a luxury good offered only to people who can afford to buy premium products and services," he is looking straight at Apple.

What they're not saying: Facebook and Google generally shy away from talking about user ownership of data, or about privacy as a fundamental right, though Apple frequently refers to those ideas.

  • All three companies say they are committed to "empowering" users — but that empowerment takes place only within the confines of the absolute control the firms wield as private owners of the digital platforms we use to communicate privately and publicly.

What's next: All three companies view some kind of privacy regulation as inevitable.

  • They want to see a single national standard rather than state-by-state rules.
  • As we enter the voice-assistant era, these companies, along with competitor Amazon, will end up with an even higher profile in our homes and lives.
  • They will depend more on our trust and face even higher scrutiny over privacy — but if past experience is any guide, we may collectively choose basking in convenience over worrying about surveillance.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify Apple's position on user data ownership and the right to privacy.