What Apple’s privacy announcement means to you, and why it’s important we push beyond
Staying private in the land of plenty
By Javier Agüera, Steve Tam
While technology today has landed us in a realm of comforts we seemingly take for granted, somehow our digital reality doesn’t feel as glamorous as expected. We were promised Rosie from the Jetsons and a talking car named Kitt, but instead we were met with a Roomba and the Prius. Radical innovations have invaded our daily lives for the better and we strive toward seamless integration, while never quite letting go of the lingering dystopic futures that science fiction seems to insist upon.
What is more confusing is how differently we treat our belongings in the physical world versus those in the digital. We hide our worldly possessions behind key and lock, but are happy for our identities and bank accounts to be intangibly stored in a so-called ‘cloud’. With the tap of a finger we can have food at our doorstep, a car to our meetings, or a video conversation with a friend on the other side of the planet — yet we refuse to accept that these conveniences come with risks that often supercede those of physical loss. The virtual world can manifest itself in shapes beyond the bubblewrap of an Amazon package, and with Apple’s recent announcement we are only beginning to put some weight on the importance of privacy in our digital lives.
What Apple has brought to the spotlight represents a true shift in the consumer paradigm. While the technical implications may be a bit intangible, the moral stance is one we have been hoping they would take for years. We as users have accepted the invisible contract of trading our personal data for useful online services: Facebook keeps us connected, so we trade preferences for ad revenue. Google organizes our inboxes and maps, so we happily exchange location data. But Apple’s foray into prioritizing user’s privacy will hopefully put more control in our hands as the conversation shifts from one of fear to endless opportunity.
So what does Differential Privacy mean to users?
The concept is quite simple — as we know, a lot of our personal data is collected by big companies so they can better understand us as users (and remain profitable). Even when well-meaning companies try to make data collection anonymous, we’ve found far too frequently that oversights lead to exposure. For example in the late 2000s Netflix released an ‘anonymized’ dataset of its users viewing preferences only to find that two researchers demonstrated that the same data could be used to re-identify users and even predict their political affiliation… oops?
Differential Privacy is a set of techniques that allow companies like Apple to prevent slip ups like this from happening. They sacrifice an element of precision by adding noise to large data sets so individual user identification is less likely to be revealed. In simple terms, Apple can now know if their users are using their map app or Google’s, but they can’t know specifically which one you use yourself.
So this means we’re all safe now, right?
Not quite, Differential Privacy (DP) is still a complex system to implement and requires customization for every situation — there is no one size fits all solution and these are still early days. At Snips we believe that influencers in the tech space will need to employ more than just DP to truly protect user privacy. In a perfect world, we will move closer toward the concept of True Privacy where there is implied transparency regarding all data collected, or better yet where no user data is collected at all! But in the meantime we must embrace these strides in the right direction while being aware of their potential shortcomings.
At Snips we want to build an impressive AI, alongside uncompromised privacy. What if our platform could tell how far you are from your next meeting, without knowing where you are or where you’re heading. Or what if we could know how many contacts you have in common with a new friend without actually seeing who knows who. Using a complex new technique called Homomorphic Encryption, Snips is able to provide true value to users, and actually protect their privacy rather than just throwing a veil over it.
We at Snips are thrilled with Apple’s recent privacy announcement — it means that the products we use on a daily basis are becoming more protected. The increased press also moves the concept of Privacy into the limelight from something that used to be discussed in theory. Hopefully it will rally the other major companies who hold so much data about us to follow suit, as it paves the way for startups like ours to become relevant in competitive product verticals. Another motion in making technology private, and the first step in making technology disappear!
And by the way, if you care about creating products that will change the way we use our devices in our daily lives, take a look at our jobs page!