The emerging Cambridge Analytica/Facebook affair, in which people’s personal data was allegedly used for purposes it should not have been used for, shows the danger of surveillance capitalism and the need for a new approach to social networking — and that’s what Apple can provide.
Understand history, but don't repeat it
History shows us that Apple has never succeeded in creating a social network. Ping, launched in 2010, was closed down in 2012 due to lack of interest.
Apple Music hides its own mini-social network (kind of like the also ill-fated Connect), but this is also limited in use and uptake.
Why has Apple failed? You’d think a company with such a large and loyal customer base would find it easy to launch a social network its customers liked.
That’s not the case — history shows that other focused social networking services have been able to deliver more features faster than Apple has in this space.
History also shows that Apple has always had a hard time letting go of control for long enough to let people use any social media tools it provides for self-expression. One of my biggest complaints about Ping was that it did nothing at all. It had no personality.
In part, this may reflect a cultural decision at Apple. CEO Tim Cook earlier this year said: “I don’t have a kid, but I have a nephew that I put some boundaries on. There are some things that I won’t allow; I don’t want them on a social network.”
Perhaps, but perhaps not — the Cambridge Analytica scandal shows one way in which people’s data and (potentially) beliefs can be abused by the networks.
Surveillance capitalism’s big fail
News concerning the scandal is still emerging, with investigations across key newspapers and TV stations ongoing.
In brief, Cambridge Analytica is accused of harvesting personal information about tens of millions of people in order to pass that data on to another party. (In this case, the U.S. Trump and U.K. Leave EU campaigns.)
This information was then apparently used in an attempt to tweak some votes in certain key marginal places. The story is ongoing, information on the matter is still emerging, lawyers are involved — but this is quite a good brief of events so far.
While Facebook is attempting to distance itself from responsibility, I think it is hard for a reasonable person not to see that if one company can achieve this kind of knowledge by collecting data within the network, others also can.
At what point does it become a Facebook’s responsibility to effectively protect its users from such abuse of their privacy?
Privacy at its core
Pending full disclosure of the facts, the crisis should be a wake-up call to anyone who fears that untrammelled harvesting of user data has implications that reach to the core of the society we live in. It raises questions that matter, such as:
- Is it really appropriate that third parties can harvest data from across social networks like Facebook and use that information to figure out your voting patterns, political alignment, or sexuality?
- Who controls whom that data is sold to?
- What happens to an LGBT Facebook user when information about their sexuality is sold to a reactionary, ignorant government that persecutes LGBT people?
There's also balance: While privacy is very important, those needs must also be balanced with the potential for such information to unlock new opportunities and efficiencies in an automated, big data-driven smart future.
This begs the question: Which company already has a stated position to put safeguards around user data? Which company seeks the convenience of machine intelligence and data analytics at the same time as wanting to protect users from abuse of their private information?
Apple’s social opportunity
Apple’s devices already possess more power than most.
The company just needs to tie them all together.
Imagine a space in which non-fake, curated Apple News links could be shared and commented on by iCloud users through their verified accounts. Apple has previously said there is a “responsibility” for big firms to take responsibility for fake news.
Not only would the fact that identities needed to be verified by iCloud users help cut out some of the abusive trolls who make other social networks so uncomfortable, but Apple’s decisions around privacy protection and keeping ad networks out of the picture should empower users to truly communicate in an atmosphere of relative security and trust.
Industry-leading privacy means you’d share only what you want to share with people you trust. It really would be ...
... A place for friends
While the popularity of the big social networks proves the demand for services of this kind, a truly private network doesn’t exist.
Even if Apple had the will to create it, its construction would require a substantial investment of cash for no clear return, making it unlikely to happen.
Another approach might be to acquire an existing social network (Twitter?), pruning the fake accounts and advertising threads while beefing up its privacy and security technologies (and shipping some free apps for non-Apple users). But company investors will be asking, “Where’s the money?” Also the "Apple-buys-Twitter" speculation is a little past it’s sell-by, isn’t it?
The Cambridge Analytica/Facebook crisis shows that Apple’s principled approach to user privacy will become more — and not less — important as the full implications of connected intelligence are better understood.
The lack of it now appears to threaten democracy itself.
(Signing off, I’m not blind to the fact that now I’m going to invite you to please follow me on social media. Until we find a better replacement.)
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