Apple’s first World War Data Conference targets Facebook, not the last

Apple committed the ultimate betrayal at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), timed to perfection and slipped in quietly alongside its more eye-catching announcements. Cook and Co. are taking advantage of the volatile political landscape around data privacy to position Apple as a good guy in all the controversy and mistrust – by serving beleaguered Facebook with a hammer blow.

In the same week a New York Times report accused Facebook of supplying user data to device manufacturers including Apple and Samsung, Apple revealed an update to its Safari browser designed to limit the amount of power third parties like Facebook and Google have over tracking users – therefore denting ad dollars earned from the internet duopoly’s Safari user base.

“Last year we introduced intelligent tracking prevention to dramatically reduce the ability for apps to track you across websites using cookies. Somehow this thing is just following you wherever you go. Well, we’ve all seen these ‘Like’ buttons, ‘Share’ buttons and ‘Comment’ fields. It turns out these can be used to track you whether you click on them or not. So this year, we are shutting that down,” said Apple’s SVP of software engineering Craig Federighi, to rapturous applause at the WWDC.

From the next update, Safari browser users will be notified when a site is attempting to access data from cookies and other sources, then prompted whether to continue or block access. Fingerprinting is also set to be addressed by the revamped web browser, a method used by marketers to access detailed device information such as plug-ins by issuing unique device IDs. iOS 12 and macOS Mojave will scrap support for legacy plug-ins and only bring out generic configuration data and default fonts – thereby removing all individuality.

“Data companies are clever and relentless. In addition to cookies, they use fingerprinting. Your device can be identified by a unique set of characteristics to construct a unique fingerprint to track your device from site to site. As a result, your Mac will look more like everyone else’s Mac and it will be dramatically more difficult for data companies to uniquely identify your device and track you,” added Federighi.

He’s not wrong about the clever and relentless part, which the New York Times report this week suggests are attributes of data companies Apple relishes, abusing its dominant position by harnessing Facebook’s social media prowess. Whether or not money has changed hands remains to be seen, following a full inquiry into these fresh claims that Apple and swarms more device makers have unethically accessed private data of Facebook’s 2.2 billion users.

It takes two to tango and while Facebook has been the brunt of worldwide investigations, we should not be surprised to find the company responsible for hardware and the operating system on which the social media platforms of our beloved devices run, is in fact guilty of housing a goldmine of user data – of which misuse is rife.

“Sure looks like Zuckerberg lied to Congress about whether users have ‘complete control’ over who sees our data on Facebook. This needs to be investigated and the people responsible need to be held accountable,” said David Cicilline, a Ranking member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law, following the New York Times report.

Zuckerberg has seemingly been protecting Apple and some 60 other device manufacturers in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal for damage limitation purposes, while throwing them under the bus to share the blame must have been a more than tempting option. The allegations from the New York Times report allege Apple has gained “deep access” to Facebook user data stretching back a decade.

CEO Tim Cook has since denied the allegations, saying Apple is not in the data business and has never been in the data business. “What we did was we integrated the ability to share in the operating system, make it simple to share a photo and that sort of thing. So it’s convenient for the user,” he said.

Federighi made no bones about Apple’s Safari privacy overhaul spelling bad news for Facebook, using the social media site as a demo for the feature, and of course the move will also have negative implications for Google, the other half of the online advertising duopoly.

Facebook is yet to issue an official statement, but the company’s Chief Security Officer, Alex Stamos, tweeted: “If this is about protecting privacy, and not just cute virtue signaling, then Apple should block all 3rd party Javascript and pixels.”

The Intelligent Tracking Prevention 2.0 features from the WWDC seem to be based on Mozilla research, according to Wired, noting that Chrome has added a similar Do Not Track mechanism and ad-blocking in line with guidelines from the Coalition for Better Ads.

So the rival browsers are tightening up their privacy games, despite Apple being uniquely positioned in that it doesn’t earn money from internet advertising like many of today’s technology titans. The new look Safari is therefore being used as an effective weapon by Apple – hitting Facebook and Google right where it hurts. Apple has fueled the fire engulfing data companies while cleverly concealing its own catalysts as fire extinguishers.