The revolutionary privacy rules introduced with Apple’s iOS 14.5 were certainly unpopular with third parties looking to monetize their apps on the platform, but they also represent a faction of internal company culture that is facing pushback from an unexpected source: Apple’s own engineers, who reportedly feel hamstrung by the sources of data that the company’s longstanding commitment to user privacy have cut them off from.
The App Tracking Transparency framework privacy rules were aimed at the targeted advertising industry, which sometimes employs privacy-invasive methods to profile iOS users. But engineers say that the company’s privacy terms are also having a negative impact on the features of services such as Apple+ TV, Siri and Apple Maps. Proposed new features and app concepts are also reportedly being nixed solely because of fears they will violate the privacy rules.
Apple privacy rules, intended for advertisers, also cramping the style of internal engineers
Anonymous former employees and inside sources have told The Information that Apple’s privacy rules are making it difficult for internal developers to keep pace with the features that competing services offer. Apple’s internal services reportedly collected relatively little data to begin with, and engineers are now blocked from accessing a great deal of what is available.
These limitations have apparently been an endemic complaint inside of the company, dating back to even before the App Tracking Transparency framework began. The former Apple employees say the company’s announcement of “differential privacy” at WWDC 2016, in which personal data is anonymized prior to leaving the user’s device, had much to do with preserving external user privacy while attempting to address internal frustrations with lack of access to customer data.
This move was certainly not a fix for the company’s cultural clash, however, in which senior management dictates strong privacy rules and lower-level developers then attempt to find workarounds to implement requested features. In 2019, a plan to allow voice purchases via Siri (something already implemented by competing services such as Amazon’s Alexa) was dropped primarily because of internal rules about linking Apple user IDs with voice data. This was another case where engineers attempted to find a workaround, but were not able to and eventually decided to permanently shelve the idea of adding the feature. This same issue also reportedly created friction during the development of the Apple Watch, with internal debates about whether voice features like Raise to Speak comported with internal privacy rules.
Apple TV+ developers have also reportedly complained about the company’s restrictions on tracking the history of what users watch, which prevents the service from implementing an algorithm that can use prior viewing habits to make new recommendations (as is done by Netflix as well as certain other competing services). Developers believe that this is hurting the overall user engagement metrics on the service as the feature has been demonstrated to drive viewers to spend more time watching videos on competing services.
Some of the frustration also appears to stem from the fact that relatively junior employees must sign off on decisions made by senior engineers; any new use of customer data requires the formal approval of at least three “privacy czars” before it can be put into action. The inability to get three of these employees to sign off is likely what killed off the iApp ad network several years ago. It is also apparently the reason why the Photos app does not chronologically list pictures by location, due to objections from privacy staff that authoritarian governments might abuse the feature to track dissidents and journalists.
Are Apple engineers in tune with consumer desires?
Looking over the list of complaints that the Apple engineers appear to have about the privacy rules, it appears that Apple’s corporate policy of putting consumer privacy first is actually working as intended. While it might ultimately not be in the best financial interest of the company in terms of keeping up with the feature list of direct competition, most of the items that didn’t end up making the cut actually appear to be a boon to consumer privacy. For example, Apple TV+ not keeping a detailed history of consumer viewing habits is something that a lot of people would likely prefer to an algorithm that performs a recommendation function better served by simply talking to other people or visiting a movie forum.
One option that Apple could potentially pursue to square these two sides of the argument is to include these sorts of features, but have them off by default and require the user to manually enable them. There is something of this approach already in the App Tracking Transparency privacy rules, in that apps are still able to track users for advertising but only with full disclosure and the knowing consent of the user.