The rising privacy trend a.k.a. ‘You are not a product’

28.10.2020 | 6 min read

Privacy is certainly a hot topic at the moment. The latest WWDC20 (Apple’s developer conference) announcements showed us that customer privacy is one of Apple's top priorities. Similarly, Google’s Android ecosystem is taking its own actions in this regard. Each of its versions introduces new permissions to give users more control over their personal data. But it's not only a trend in these (nearly) trillion-dollar companies. Privacy-focused businesses are on the rise. In this blog post, I'll touch on the recent announcements from Apple, but I’ll also use them as a basis for a more general take on the subject of privacy - which I believe to be a trend that will continue to grow within the next few years.

Apple’s secret handshake

Apple's focus on privacy and security is obviously not something new. For years, iOS has been considered a highly safe system with a minimal number of malicious applications. Why? It possesses a strict app review process (the review team checks each new application and update), system permissions necessary for many privacy-related data (photos, camera, microphone, localization, contact), and filesystem access limited by so-called sandboxes.

This year, we saw a few new additions to that environment. iOS applications will now ask for permission to scan the local WiFi network; We can also see a small popup when it uses a system clipboard. App Store will have a new section where it displays used personal data (declared by app creators). What I like the most is that Safari for macOS blocks trackers and shows how many of them we encountered in the previous week.

Additionally, most machine learning algorithms like photo classification, handwash recognition, and speech recognition happens on the device, so our private data won't leave our iOS powered device.

What’s happening on Android?

Google takes Android platform privacy and security as seriously as Apple. Every year we see increasingly positive changes in its ecosystem. Google Play cleans the system of malicious applications on a daily basis. Apps are now reviewed for privacy (although the details of this process are not commonly known). We can also observe more in time permission dialogs on Android. Gone are the old times, when you could review used services only on app installment. At its Google I/O (Google developer conference), the company also placed a focus on speech recognition which now happens on a device whenever possible.

"If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold." Author unknown

For service and hardware creators such as Apple or Amazon, users are their customers. They take money directly from our wallets. It happens when we buy a new iPhone, Macbook, or subscribe to Apple Music.

The situation is different when it comes to social media giants such as Twitter or Facebook, where the end-user is only a part of a bigger scheme. These companies make money on selling our attention to advertisers and use various methods to increase advertisers' profits. Some of them violate our privacy. If you haven’t already seen it, you can learn more about this subject Netflix documentary - The Social Dilemma.

Apple’s Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA)

The Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) is a random device identifier assigned by Apple to a user's device. Advertisers can use this ID to show us personalized ads. At the above-mentioned WWDC, we found out that the apps will now ask for permission to use it, which will be a big step in terms of customer privacy. Users will be able to decide whether they want to be tracked by the app or not. Currently, iOS comes without this feature due to big ad providers' concerns - mostly Facebook.

Privacy-focused Software as a Service and Products

Privacy-awareness is of course not just the domain of mobile. There are many other profitable solutions created with a promise of users' privacy. Below, I want to describe two of the ones that appeal to me the most.

Case study: Hey

Hey is an email service which reinvents how we use emails. Cleverly built Imbox (not a typo - a merger of the words ‘important’ and ‘inbox’) enables messages to be screened before they are presented to you. The separate sections for newsletters and bills and simple navigation make using Hey a pleasure. But Hey also cares about our privacy and turns off all Spy Pixel trackers from the newsletter by default. Additionally, we see which service the given newsletter is using and what kind of data it tracks.

Case Study: Fathom Analytics

Fathom Analytics is an alternative to well-known, mostly overused Google Analytics. With Fathom, developers can track web page usage without abusing their users' privacy. Data gathered by this analytics service is not as thorough as you can obtain from the competition, but it will be sufficient for most cases.

You are not a product

The above-mentioned apps have something in common - a trend in privacy-focused businesses. They charge their users. You value your users' privacy so you can't make money on selling their data to advertisers. It isn't unusual in SaaS like Fathom, but it was a bold move by Hey.

Thanks to Google's Gmail, people are used to free email providers. Of course, if you’ve read this far you’ll realise that all free things come at a cost - here of course we’re talking about the situation of ‘becoming a product.’ Gmail uses your data to present ads related to your interest. Hey decided to treat its users like customers. This tweet illustrates the difference in approach. Although it’s comical in nature, you’ll get the idea.

The continued rise of privacy

The examples above show that client privacy has become a popular trend, and a major selling point not just for big corporations. It can be a sustainable business opportunity for indie brands, startups, or small companies. But there is one final topic that it is worth mentioning.

Customers have to understand why their data privacy is essential, which can't be achieved without proper knowledge of the subject which they won't get from social media services. As a business owner, getting a good understanding of this subject is your responsibility. I hope that this blog post will also form a small drop in the ocean of knowledge, and it will help raise awareness of privacy to global trends for the good of customers and businesses all over the world.

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