Who is doing what to preserve our privacy? (Hint: Not Google, who already back-tracked from a 6 month old progress)

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Not Bitcoin-related per se, but given that privacy is an important issue across the board, and one that Bitcoin users tend to feel especially strong about, not to mention that the security of whatever cryptocurrencies we happen to own depends on the security of our smartphones and computers, I felt that taking a detour into Google’s broken promise with regards to the strong default encryption it once touted would be appropriate.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has not backed down in the fight to protect his customers privacy.

It wasn’t even that long ago – just last fall, in reaction to the flurry of revalations concerning the NSA’s behavior leaked by Ed Snowden, Apple stepped right into the middle of the controversy by announcing that future versions of iOS (its operating system for iPhones and iPads) would feature strong encryption enabled by default. Law enforcement agencies across the country piled on criticism against Apple for taking that step.

(NOTE: By “strong encryption” I mean encryption that ONLY the devices user can decipher – rather than the more common approach, which has been to generate a User encryption key that that is also decodable by the hardware provider, whether they are Apple, Google or Microsoft).

Shortly after the announcement, and in a blatant “me too!” maneuver, Google announced that they, too, would be enabling strong encryption, turned on by default in the next version of Android.

Well, that new version has arrived, and though a couple of Nexus devices do indeed have strong device encryption enabled by default, large numbers of phones made by Google’s licensee’s do no such thing.

Yes, one could argue that each manufacturer can choose to offer their phones however they’ed like, but Google certainly has it in their power to enforce adopting device-level encryption. After all, hardware manufacturers aren’t allowed, by terms of their license, to offer any software store but Google Play to their customers. And if they want to have the Play Store, manufacturers must include a swatch of other Google apps, including Voice Search, Maps, Google Hangouts, and Google Calendar. If Google feels it appropriate to force its licensees to install Google Calendar on their customers phones, then certainly having them enable device-level encryption oughtn’t have been too much of a stretch.

Regardless, though, less than 6 months after the “me too” announcement that saw Google trying to share in the goodwill that Apple earned for itself, Google has backtracked, without any even an announcment announcement.

Shockingly, the Android community seems to have been extra vocal in attacking Apple on privacy issues as of late, has so far remained silent about this development.

Ranking the “BIG THREE” according to their respect (real or imagined) for user privacy.

Of the companies that make products that most of us use on a day to day basis, I would say that Apple ranks right near the top in terms of acting in their customers best interest with regards to their privacy.

First off, the added revenue that they could gain by adopting a Google-like stance on user data is negligible, especially when compared to their possible losses should users revolt as a result of that. They have become the most profitable company in the world, ever, by designing and selling high-end consumer hardware bundled with the software to operate it, and there’s no reason to rock the boat over a comparatively small few extra billion… (Yes, I laughed as I wrote that!).

Apple has a history that spans nearly 40 years, and throughout that time, collecting and capitalizing on consumer data has never figured prominently in their business plan. Sure, oversights have, can and will occur, as can happen at any large enterprise, but generally, I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.

And, unlike many other companies, Apple goes out of their way to shield their users’ privacy, from enabling strong encryption on their devices by default, to publishing a simple and clear guide to help their users understand what steps they need to take in order to preserve their privacy. And they go even further- their CEO, Tim Cook, puts is own name and reputation on the line by providing a personal letter to their customers which expresses his and Apple’s position in helping their customers maintain their privacy in the digital age. Sure, it might only words on a screen, but they are words that are left unspoken by most other CEO’s.

Second is Microsoft, but they are in a much more precarious position with regards to what actions they might take in the future. Again, same as Apple, they have made a tremendous amount of money developing and selling software.

Unfortunately, though, Microsoft has never been a trailblazer and created its own markets. It’s instead relied on incremental amounts of innovation paired with the inertia of their users. What makes that unfortunate is, their businesses are drying up. Not like their profitablity is at risk, let alone their future as a going concern, but Wall Street wants to see their companies growing their revenues, not just staying flat.

For Microsoft, that’s a problem – sales of Windows desktop and laptop PC’s have pretty much flatlined, which doesn’t bode well for sales of Windows licenses. Office, their second most important cash-cow, is currently benefitting from the move to subscription-based licensing, but that can only impress Wall Street so much. Microsoft NEEDS to find a new, profitable line of business.

Despite a few tries at manufacturing their own hardware (Xbox, Zune, Surface), Apple’s business model is not one that can be emulated by Microsoft. Which leaves becoming more Google-esque as their other viable option. They already have Bing, the worlds second biggest search engine to compete with Google Search, Outlook.com to compete with Gmail, and Office 365 in competition  with Google Apps. All that really needs to be done is building out an ad network and flicking the switch to begin collecting and analyzing customer data in order to show “relevant” ads.

One issue with adopting that strategy is that, just as Tim Cook went on record regarding his company’s stance on user privacy, in November 2013, Microsoft did the same thing, albeit in a less expansive way. But they did embark on an extensive online and offline advertising campaign, blasting Google for its data collection practices in regards to Gmail, while promising that Outlook.com would never do anything equivalent. However, they did leave a big back door open by not mentioning Bing or any future internet services that they may offer.

For now, Microsoft is probably head and shoulders above Google in terms of protecting the privacy interests of their users, but in the coming years, that could easily change. I’d look at them warily.

And then, there’s Google. The company that once pledge to do no evil. Google offers an impressive array of services, which include:

Google Search – easily the  most widely used search engine

Android – the dominant operating system for smartphones

Gmail – one of the most popular email services

Google Apps – online office tools, including a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation program, which competes with Microsoft Office

While those tools are some of the best known, they only represent the tip of the iceberg insofar as Google’s offerings go. At this point, we should pause and ask ourselves “How many of us have ever paid even a single dime for any of Google’s services?”. Hardly any of us, right? Yet the company is also one of the most profitable companies in the world…

How is that?

Advertising.

And how did Google skip ahead of all of the other online advertisers, to become the biggest ad agency in the world, online or offline? By analyzing the vast troves of user data generated by each of us whenever we use any of their services, in order to build high targetable profiles and therefore show us the most targeted advertising they can.

Really.

Like, it’s sadly amusing to see staunch fans of all of Googles products feigning being upset about their privacy being invaded by the the various three-letter-agencies, when that those agencies are only siphoning off the data that Google has already collected on us.

Eric Schmidt, executive chairman and former CEO of Google

And, just as Tim Cook went on the record regarding his companies stance on user privacy, and just as Microsoft went on record about how their company would be a better steward for the confidential information found in all of our emails, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman and former CEO of Google, has been outspoken about his own views on privacy. Unfortunately, those view aren’t what many of us want to hear:

The “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it;

We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about;”

It’s a future where you don’t forget anything…”In this new future you’re never lost…We will know your position down to the foot and down to the inch over time;”

…It’s important to distinguish between “worry versus harm” when it came to privacy online.”

We are very early in the total information we have within Google. …The algorithms will get better and we will get better at personalisation… The goal is to enable Google users to be able to ask the question such as “What shall I do tomorrow?” and “What job shall I take?” … We cannot even answer the most basic questions because we don’t know enough about you. That is the most important aspect of Google’s expansion;”

And of course, my favorite: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place;

These three companies are the dominant providers of the means by which we create information, share information, search for information, and correspond with those we trust and care about. It could be via an iPad, a laptop running Windows, or a smartphone running Android, but nearly all of us use some combination of these companies products.

I can only speak for myself, but my money is on Apple as being the least likely to take actions with my personal information that I would be opposed to.

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