Customer vs. Commodity and your grandmother’s underwear

June 27th, 2013 § 0 comments

Most of the major internet companies have been releasing statements playing down their involvement in the NSA Prism scandal that broke couple weeks ago. For their part I think these companies would like nothing more than to not be involved with the NSA but since warrants are involved they don’t really have much choice. This has lead to some non-denial denials saying that they have not given the NSA unfettered access to their servers. If the scale of access ranges from zero to complete we are left hoping it was closer to zero but we will probably never know.

The problem, in my opinion, is not how much access these companies gave to the NSA. The problem is the fact that they store the data in the first place. Companies that make their money from advertisers (Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, basically any company that provides “free” web services) have no choice because the more personal data they have about their users the more they can charge advertisers. Their users are the commodity and advertisers are the customer. Contrast this with a company who’s users are also their customers and you have a very refreshing statement about the NSA’s spying program.

An excerpt Apple’s commitment to customer privacy:

For example, conversations which take place over iMessage and FaceTime are protected by end-to-end encryption so no one but the sender and receiver can see or read them. Apple cannot decrypt that data. Similarly, we do not store data related to customers’ location, Map searches or Siri requests in any identifiable form.

Apple is not doing this because they are morally superior to the Googles of the world. They are not doing it because of some mealymouthed corporate tagline about not doing “evil”. They are doing it because it’s in the best interest of their customers just as Google is storing massive amounts of personal data in the interest of their customers.

Marco Arment had a great analogy for how he treats a customer’s personal data. He was talking about accessing a user’s contact book from Instapaper and he compared it to his grandmother’s underwear drawer. To paraphrase Marco

Imagine your grandmother is in the hospital and she needs you to get an important document from her house. The only problem is that it’s stored in her underwear drawer. You are, of course, going to do what your grandmother asks but you are going to do it as quickly as possible. Open the drawer remove the document and, if possible, leave the rest of the contents untouched.

He made this comment in the wake of the Path address book controversy but I think it should be an attitude shared by all developers. Apple doesn’t store your iMessages because they don’t want the liability. Google reads your jabber messages so they can get a better sense of who you are and what ads you are more likely to click on. To abuse the analogy they would be happy to catalog your grandmother’s underwear drawer for you. BTW, she might like this special offer from JC Penney’s.

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