How does Apple, Google, and Amazon Handle Your Data?
Since many of the products we use are made by different companies, it can be hard to tell how our data is protected. Is your data encrypted? Who sells what to whom? Can the government track your information? All of these questions are important to ask in a world where we rely heavily on our devices for functionality and protection.
Between Apple, Amazon, and Google, we see a spectrum of privacy considerations, including how you’re served ads and how your data is protected on-device.
Followers of Apple have heard the marketing pitch: one of Apple’s highest priorities is your data security. Other than publicly declaring its commitment to privacy, Apple has also made news with the San Bernardino case, where it refused to unlock or provide a workaround for an iPhone used by a shooter.
Though Apple surely uses this for marketing leverage, it also make it abundantly clear how it takes care of your data. On their Approach to Privacy page, Apple explains how it uses a mixture of on-device security and iCloud encryption to protect your data.
With encryption, Apple scrambles data so that it’s unable to be read to anyone without a particular key—and because encryption is meant to keep anyone and everyone away from your information, even Apple can’t access it. Encryption is used with the data you send to iCloud, as well as other device functions like iMessage, FaceTime, and Health.
When you use Apple Pay, you’ll need to add your credit card information to make
payments. Instead of keeping this device on a server, however, Apple stores this information right on the device, unable to be accessed by the operating system or other outside users. Apple’s Secure Enclave works in a similar way—it stores security information, like Touch ID and Face ID scans, passcodes, and iOS boot information. Like credit card data, this information is unreadable by the system through the use of a form of encryption.
Perhaps the most reassuring fact about Apple, though, is that it claims to not sell your data, simply because it has no reason to do so. Unlike Google and Amazon, Apple’s primary markets are in hardware—its main business isn’t online marketplaces or advertising networks like the others. Because of this, your data is not provided to advertisers or used in their platform to sell you products.
To read more about Apple’s stance on privacy, check out https://www.apple.com/privacy/.
Amazon’s primary service is its online platform for e-commerce, and the growing popularity of its Echo devices have expanded Amazon into the hardware market. But unlike Apple, Amazon isn’t selling you iPhones or MacBooks—instead, its goal is to sell you one of millions of products on its online store.
Because of this, Amazon’s Echo products—which are likely your most common non-website interactions with Amazon—collect data on you to build a profile of your shopping and personal habits. They do this through their voice collection service—which Amazon claims to use to improve Alexa—and your queries. For example, if you ask Alexa how much a Nintendo Switch costs, you’ll potentially see an advertisement on the web version of Amazon for a Nintendo Switch.
Amazon also uses your Amazon.com search data to target ads to you across its own platforms. “Across its own platforms” is an important part of this, however—unlike Google, Amazon wants to keep your business to itself, helping you buy its own products on its own site.
With Amazon’s Echo, security has been a growing concern; in one instance, a researcher named Mark Barnes was able to run code that could listen to another person’s Amazon Echo. Additionally, consumers have expressed displeasure with the Echo’s use of voice recordings during queries asked by the user. After a question is asked, the Echo will save the audio for what it claims to be improvements to Alexa.
For documentation on how Amazon uses your data, visit https://www.amazon.com/gp/ help/customer/display.html?nodeId=468496.
Despite its forays into hardware, Google’s most profitable business is in advertising, either on its own website or on YouTube. To do this, Google collects data on the users of its platforms and shares the data with advertisers to make money and advertise back to you.
There is a common trope that “Google sells your data,” but that’s not entirely true; instead, it’s better explained that Google uses data it collects from you to provide advertisers with the best ways to advertise on its platforms. For example, if you’ve searched for Pepsi in Google, it might provide your demographic information so that Pepsi can run a YouTube ad to you.
With both Google Home and Android, Google takes how you use the apps and services on its platforms—Assistant, YouTube, location tracking, etc.—and provides that information to advertisers for eventual advertisements you might see. That’s why, if you take a vacation to Florida and search “best restaurants near me,” you’ll see both organic and paid links to restaurants in the area. This data, depending on your settings, may still be anonymized, but will still be given to advertisers.
On Android devices, one privacy setting that Google does make available is the ability to add encryption; however, many device manufacturers have that turned off by default. In the Security settings on the device, there should be an option to turn on encryption.
Similarly to the Echo, Google’s willingness to collect data has proven to highlight security flaws. In late 2017, the typical voice recording feature for the Google Home Mini was accidentally extended to pick up all conversations, whether or not they were said before or after the wake word. Google’s necessity to collect data partnered with their customers’ mass hordes of information provides a conundrum: how does Google ethically keep data private while also providing information to advertisers?
To find out more information about Google’s privacy, visit its page at https://privacy.google.com/.
Amazon, Apple, and Google all handle data very differently, and users of each platform should think about how they want their information to be saved and passed along. By reflecting on the trade offs between convenience and privacy, users can make conscious decisions on what to hide and what products to use.
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