August 7, 2020, 15:40

You can now sign in to apps and websites with your Apple ID. It’s a big deal for privacy.

You can now sign in to apps and websites with your Apple ID. It’s a big deal for privacy.

At Apple’s annual developers conference on Monday, senior VP of software engineering Craig Federighi showed a familiar pop-up window — a sign-in box offering the choice to “Sign in with Google” or “Sign in with Facebook.” Seconds later, they were erased and replaced with a new box, labeled “Sign in with Apple.”

The pitch is that while Facebook and Google’s sign-in services merely offer the convenience of not having to create yet another username for every single app or site you use, Apple will do the same — but presumably just as a courtesy, not a profit driver. In other words, it won’t be tying each new sign-in to an ever-growing dossier of activity information that is later used to target you with ads and follow you around the web.

“Sign In With Apple” even generates random email addresses for each app you use, to act as an intermediary that prevents outside services from gathering your real email address and using it to connect your activity across sites and apps. This means you can effectively sign in to apps with dozens of partial aliases, and cut them off at any time. Even Federighi seemed surprised by the audience response to this, which was a round of very enthusiastic screams.

“Stockpiles of personal data serve only to enrich the companies that collect them,” Cook has argued

The new feature will be part of iOS 13, available this fall. Also packaged with iOS 13: the ability to give one-time-only location access to apps (rather than leaving location sharing on indefinitely) and the option to view a simple report that explains how much location data was collected and to what uses it may have been put.

While another sign-in option might not sound immediately thrilling or innovative, it is a pretty aggressive step for Apple, which has spent the past several years ramping up its emphasis on privacy — particularly in contrast to Facebook and Google. Headlines about Tim Cook “slamming rivals” over privacy are fairly frequent. As far back as 2015, Cook was using the catchphrase that privacy is a “fundamental human right,” but he’s brought it up more and more in the wake of the major privacy scandals of the past few years.

“Stockpiles of personal data serve only to enrich the companies that collect them,” he argued at a data protection conference in Belgium last year, shortly after an MSNBC interview in which he distanced Apple from the rest of Big Tech. “The truth is we could make a ton of money if we monetized our customer. If our customer was our product, we could make a ton of money. We’ve elected not to do that.”

This January, Cook published an op-ed in Time asking Congress to pass “comprehensive federal privacy legislation” that would curtail much of Facebook’s and Google’s regular data collection. A few weeks later, Apple briefly blocked Google and Facebook from using the App Store to distribute test versions of apps — a hotly debated and fairly dramatic punishment for violations of Apple’s rules about putting unapproved software on customers’ devices.

On CBS Evening News Monday night, Cook insisted that Apple wasn’t “taking a shot at anybody” with its new feature, adding, “We focus on the user. And the user wants the ability to go across numerous properties on the web without being under surveillance. We’re moving privacy protections forward.”

As Russell Brandom wrote for The Verge earlier this year, “Like most Apple projects, this is more about the ecosystem than any one service. If you truly believe Apple is better at safeguarding your data, then you wouldn’t stop at just using an Apple Card for payments. You’ll want to use Apple services for all of your sensitive data — and, of course, you’ll need Apple devices to do that.”

Apple has not been coy about the business benefits of selling privacy. Privacy features heavily in the company’s recent ad campaigns, including a billboard at the Consumer Electronics Showcase in Las Vegas in January — which the company did not even attend. The billboard, which read “What happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone,” was positioned to fall in the sightline of anybody visiting Google’s enormous playground-themed installation, which easily cost of millions of dollars and included a functioning Disney-style theme park ride.

Apple has not been coy about the business benefits of selling privacy

Of course, Google and Facebook are now putting in work to come across as privacy defenders as well. In March, Mark Zuckerberg published a many-thousand-word manifesto insisting that his company will now focus on private groups and close-friend interactions over the public News Feed. (Responses to this were very “We’ll believe it when we see it,” which seems fair!) Google CEO Sundar Pichai published an op-ed in the New York Times in May that took an oblique shot at Apple: “Privacy cannot be a luxury good offered only to people who can afford to buy premium products and services.” At Google’s annual developers conference that week, the company announced “incognito” modes for Google Maps and Google Search. This move was also criticized as putting the onus on customers to opt out of being tracked.

So far, Apple has the least incentive to collect your information (because its primary businesses are hardware and subscription services, not advertising), while Google has slightly more and Facebook still has a ton. And though watching grown men at the heads of some of the most powerful organizations in the world bicker with each other in the press is typically not very fun, it would be nice if these potshots kept fueling an arms race to be the least invasive tech company.

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