Commentary

Apple Joins Microsoft In Attacking Google On Privacy

Last year, Microsoft unveiled the site Scroogled.com, which takes aim at Googleon privacy grounds.

“Don't get Scroogled,” warns the site, which details some of the ways that Microsoft's privacy policies differ from Google's. For instance, one portion of the site blasts Google for scanning “every Gmail that's sent or received, looking for keywords so they can target Gmail users with paid ads.”

“Outlook.com is different,” Microsoft boasts. “We don't go through your email to sell ads.”

It's not clear whether Microsoft has had any success in luring Web users away from Google services by touting differences in privacy policies. Regardless, a different Google competitor -- Apple -- has adopted the same strategy.

A new Apple privacy page boasts that the company doesn't rely on mining data about users. “Our business model is very straightforward: We sell great products,” Apple CEO Tim Cook writes. “We don’t build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers. We don’t 'monetize' the information you store on your iPhone or in iCloud. And we don’t read your email or your messages to get information to market to you.”

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The company also recently moved to prevent analytics companies from tracking the physical whereabouts of iPhone and iPad users in brick-and-mortar retail stores.

When devices with the newest operating system, iOS8, scan for WiFi networks, they now use “random, locally administered MAC addresses,” instead of the devices' permanent “media access control” -- 12-digit identifiers that are broadcast when users activate WiFi.

“Because your MAC address now changes when you’re not connected to a network, it can’t be used to persistently track you,” the company writes. “This is in line with Apple’s industry-leading effort to do away with persistent identifiers, and is unique to iOS devices.”

While Apple might now be embarking on a new privacy initiative, the company has come in for criticism on that front in the past. Consider, in 2010 a Bucknell University professor showed that the majority of popular applications available for iPhones use their unique device identifiers -- 40-character alphanumeric strings -- to track users. The following year, a different study by the Technical University of Vienna  reached the same conclusion.

Apple subsequently decided to restrict developers' ability to use unique device identifiers for tracking. But when the revelations hit the press, the company came in for public criticism, and was hit with a potential class-action lawsuit (which was dismissed last year).

Regardless, it's significant that Apple now is joining Microsoft in trying to appeal to users based on the promise to protect their data. If nothing else, it indicates that some of the largest players in the tech industry are trying to address the longstanding perception that they don't take consumers' privacy seriously enough.

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