Update 22 September 2014
Last week, Apple suddenly went from silent to expansive on privacy, and the thrust of my blog straight after the Apple Watch announcement is now wrong. Apple posted a letter from CEO Tim Cook at www.apple.com/privacy along with a document that sets outs how "We’ve built privacy into the things you use every day".
The paper is very interesting. It's a sophisticated and balanced account of policy, business strategy and technology elements that go to create privacy. Apple highlights that they:
- forswear the exploitation of customer data
- do not scan content or messages
- do not let their small "iAd" business take data from other Apple departments
- require certain privacy protective practices on the part of their health app developers.
They have also provided quite decent information about how Siri and health data is handled.
Apple's stated privacy posture is all about respect and self-restraint. Setting out these principles and commitments is a very welcome development indeed. I congratulate them.
Today Apple launched their much anticipated wrist watch, described by CEO Tim Cook as "the most personal device they have ever developed". He got that right!
Rather more than a watch, it's a sort of guardian angel. The Apple Watch has Siri built-in, along with new haptic sensors and buzzers, a heartbeat monitor, accelerometer, and naturally the GPS and Wi-Fi geolocation capability to track your speed and position throughout the day. So they say "Apple Watch is an all-day fitness tracker and a highly advanced sports watch in a single device".
The Apple Watch will be a paragon of digital disruption. To understand and master disruption today requires the coordination of mobility, Big Data, the cloud and user interfaces. These cannot be treated as isolated technologies, so when a company like Apple controls them all, at scale, real transformation follows.
Thus Apple is one of the few businesses that can make promises like this: "Over time, Apple Watch gets to know you the way a good personal trainer would". In this we hear echoes of the smarts that power Siri, and we are reminded that amid the novel intimacy we have with these devices, many serious privacy problems have yet to be resolved.
The Apple Event today was a play in four acts.
- Act I: the iPhone 6 release
- Act II: Apple Pay launch
- Act III: the Apple Watch announcement
- Act IV: U2 played live and released their new album free on iTunes!
It was fascinating to watch the thematic differences across these stanzas. Do different Apple business units have different business cultures? Or, as seems more likely to me, do they experiement with customer responses across various product lines? Look at this stark contrast: With Apple Pay, they stressed security and privacy; it was a front line selling point. We were told about the Secure Element, the way card numbers are replaced by random numbers (tokenization), and an architecture where Apple cannot see how much you spend nor where you spend it. On the other hand, when it came to the Apple Watch and its integrated health sensors, privacy wasn't mentioned, not at all. We are left to deduce that aggregating personal health data at Apple's servers - or letting app developers do what they like with PII - is intrinsic to the health apps business model.
It's been left to journalists to try and find out what Apple does with the information it mines from Siri. Wired magazine discovered eventually that Apple retains masked Siri voice recordings for six months; it then purportedly de-identifies them and keeps them for a further 18 months, for research. Yet even these explanations don't touch on the extracted contents of the communications, nor the metadata, like the trends and correlations that go to Siri's learning. If the purpose of Siri is ostensibly to automate the operation of the iPhone and its apps, then Apple should be refrain from using the by-products of Siri's voice processing for anything else. But we just don't know what they do, and Apple imposes no self-restraint.
We should hope for radically greater transparency with the Apple Watch and its health apps. Most of the watch's data processing and analytics will be carried out in the cloud. So Apple will come to hold detailed records of its users' exercise regimes, their performance figures, trend data and correlations. These are health records. Inevitably, health applications will take in other medical data, like food diaries entered by users, statistics imported from other databases, and detailed measurements from Internet-connected scales, blood pressure monitors and even medical devices. Apple will see what we're doing to improve our health, day by day, year on year. They will come to know more about what's making us healthy and what's not than we do ourselves.
Now, the potential benefits from this sort of personal technology to self-managed care and preventative medicine are enormous. But so are the data management and privacy obligations.
Within the US, Apple will doubtless be taking steps to avoid falling under the stringent HIPAA regulations, yet in the rest of the world, a more subtle but far-reaching problem looms. Many broad based data privacy regimes forbid the collection of health information without consent. And the laws of the European Union, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere are generally technology neutral. This means that data collected directly from patients or doctors, and fresh data collected by way of automated algorithms are treated essentially the same way. So when a sophisticated health management app running in the cloud somewhere mines all that exercise and lifestyle data, and starts to make inferences about health and wellbeing, great care needs to be taken that the indiviuals concerned know what's going on in advance, and have given their informed consent.
It ought to be possible to expressly opt in to Big Data processes when you can understand the pros and cons and the net benefits, and to later opt out, and opt back in again, as the benefit equation shifts over time. But even visualising the products of Big Data is hard; I believe graphical user interfaces (GUIs) to allow people to comprehend and actively control the process will be one of the great software design problems of our age.
Apple are obviously preeminent in GUI and user experience innovation. You would think if anyone can create the novel yet intuitive interfaces desperately needed to control Big Data PII, Apple can. But first they will have to embrace their responsibilities for the increasingly intimate details they are helping themselves to. If the Apple Watch is "the most personal device they've ever designed" then let's see privacy and data protection commitments to match.