Apple’s New Sign-In Feature Is a ‘Shot Across the Bow’ at Google and Facebook

June 5, 2019, 10:08 PM UTC

Ask Apple, Facebook, and Google about the meaning or expectation of consumer privacy, and you’ll get three very different approaches.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said the future is private. Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote that privacy shouldn’t be a luxury good. And then there’s Apple, which at its Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday, said it’s ready to put privacy controls completely in the hands of its customers.

The iPhone maker’s proposition is simple: While Facebook, Google, and other third-party log-in options may share data with apps, Apple won’t. So instead of signing on to third-party websites using a Facebook or Google account, Apple users will soon have the choice to sign on with a privacy-promoting service from Apple.

It’s a bold move designed to cement Apple as a trusted company in the minds of consumers. But it’s also a power play that could backfire.

“Forcing apps on the App Store to offer their new, single sign-on if they offer Google’s or Facebook’s is a shot across the bow, and gives people a more privacy-protective version of a convenient tool,” says Lindsey Barrett, a teaching fellow and staff attorney at Georgetown Law’s Communications and Technology Clinic.

Companies like Apple should be commended when they do things that make it easier for people to protect their privacy and harder for bad actors to exploit it, says Barrett. “Even when they’re partially motivated by sticking it to more privacy-invasive competitors,” she adds.

Yet for all of the praise Apple has received for focusing on privacy, the company could be creating a new problem for itself. Apple’s single sign-on feature arrives as the dominance of the App Store is coming under scrutiny by regulators. And now Apple is requiring that developers include its new login option if they also offer sign-in services from third party companies, including Facebook and Google. In other words: Apple is inviting itself to the party and demanding a seat at the table.

Apple’s new sign-in feature comes on the heels of headlines that have brought Facebook and Google’s privacy positions to the forefront. While Zuckerberg says the future is private, his company still has a lot of work to do making people believe it. Last week, a Facebook attorney argued a class action lawsuit over the Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal should be thrown out because it’s not possible to invade privacy, if there’s no expectation of it in the first place.

Meanwhile, Google has tried to pivot to privacy. In a New York Times op-ed on May 7, Pichai said privacy should not be a “luxury good,” a clear shot at the price of Apple’s products.

“Yes, we use data to make products more helpful for everyone,” he wrote. “But we also protect your information.”

What’s at stake is a goldmine of data. While Google admits it collects user information to make its products better, Apple’s goal with its new feature is to reduce developers’ incentives to collect details on its customers, including through login and location information. And perhaps, encourage more customers to buy new iPhones.

According to Barrett, Apple’s new features change the business model for companies that were relying on surreptitiously collecting information. For example, previously, a photo editing app might track other data points, such as where a photo was taken, who the user was with, and where they went after the photo was snapped, even if they didn’t open the app again.

But it’s also possible “Sign in With Apple” could force developers to change their behaviors, and find other ways to get data. Jeremy Burge, chief emoji officer at Emojipedia says that as Apple’s sign-in feature gains popularity, developers could then choose to require a phone number, or other piece of personal data, in order to arbitrarily enable certain in-app functions—and collect the data they’re missing out on.

Apple’s design guidelines also suggest developers place Apple’s button above others—another policy that could raise questions about the company’s alleged anti-competitive behavior.

Still, Barrett says she sees Apple’s privacy focus as a step in a positive direction. However, she doesn’t expect Google and Facebook to follow suit.

“Ultimately Google and Facebook won’t have a reason to fundamentally modify their business models to match their rhetoric,” she says. “Until regulators give them one.”

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