Performative privacy

The New York Times, in breaking a previously unreported story about how Apple manages the data from iPhones that connect to the Chinese App Store, writes:

And in its data centers, Apple’s compromises have made it nearly impossible for the company to stop the Chinese government from gaining access to the emails, photos, documents, contacts and locations of millions of Chinese residents, according to the security experts and Apple engineers…

…In China, Apple has ceded legal ownership of its customers’ data to Guizhou-Cloud Big Data, or GCBD, a company owned by the government of Guizhou Province, whose capital is Guiyang. Apple recently required its Chinese customers to accept new iCloud terms and conditions that list GCBD as the service provider and Apple as “an additional party…”

…The documents show that GCBD employees would have physical control over the servers, while Apple employees would largely monitor the operation from outside the country. The security experts said that arrangement alone represented a threat that no engineer could solve.

Corporations cannot be driven by moral principle. When Apple speaks about privacy as a “fundamental human right,” those words must be interpreted through the prism of commercial self-aggrandizement that generates revenue by pairing solutions with problems, perceived or otherwise. If consumers believe their privacy is under attack, and they believe that such an attack inflicts harm on them, then that belief can be commercialized.

But no corporation can truly internalize any moral principle, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the contrast between Apple’s treatment of privacy with its App Tracking Transparency (ATT) policy and in its approach to privacy in China. Of course, John Gruber is correct: Apple has no choice but to comply with China’s demands for access to its data storage facilities. China is simply too critically important as a market for Apple to risk defying the Chinese government’s insistence that all of the data collected by Chinese iPhones remain in China, and that such data be accessible by the Chinese government on demand. As I wrote in Apple, CAID, and China: rock, meet hard place, Apple is too dependent on China to do anything other than operate by the Chinese government’s terms.

But if Apple forsakes consumer privacy somewhere, it can’t claim to be ideologically committed to privacy anywhere. Morality, by definition, can’t be selectively applied — “selective morality” is strategy. And Apple’s initiatives related to privacy are just that: commercial strategy.

Photo by Nihal Demirci on Unsplash