A Technological Optimist, but Just

In June, in response to claims that nine Internet companies were willingly passing information to the NSA, Apple released Apple’s Commitment to Customer Privacy:

Apple has always placed a priority on protecting our customers’ personal data, and we don’t collect or maintain a mountain of personal details about our customers in the first place. There are certain categories of information which we do not provide to law enforcement or any other group because we choose not to retain it.

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.

We will continue to work hard to strike the right balance between fulfilling our legal responsibilities and protecting our customers’ privacy as they expect and deserve.

In response, I proposed the term Strategy Credit:

A Strategy Credit is an uncomplicated decision that makes a company look good relative to other companies who face much more significant trade-offs.

User information of this type isn’t important to Apple’s business model, so they “choose not to retain it.” There’s nothing worth praising here – or denigrating – but it’s worth acknowledging.

Apple admitted as such in their recent report on government information requests:

Unlike many other companies dealing with requests for customer data from government agencies, Apple’s main business is not about collecting information. As a result, the vast majority of the requests we receive from law enforcement seek information about lost or stolen devices, and are logged as device requests.

We have no interest in amassing personal information about our customers. We protect personal conversations by providing end-to-end encryption over iMessage and FaceTime. We do not store location data, Maps searches, or Siri requests in any identifiable form.

Many were quick to praise Apple for this very fact, but let’s be clear: there is nothing here worth praising. It’s an artifact of their business model.

John Kay, in an unrelated article, made the same broad point this week in Being ethical in business is not as simple as ‘doing the right thing’:

The slogan that good business is profitable business is superficial – an attempt to make moral dilemmas dissolve in a warm bath of goodwill. When the right thing to do is also in your own self interest, you do not need advice from philosophers and theologians. Ethics are about what to do when good behaviour and profitable business are not necessarily the same thing.

Bishop Whately noted the difference between the honest man and the man for whom honesty is the best policy. When you deal with the man for whom honesty is the best policy, you never know when it might be the occasion on which honesty is no longer the best policy. Bankers, not bishops, deliver lectures extolling their own personal integrity; the man who repeatedly reminds us how honest he is rarely acquires, or deserves, our trust. The integrity we value is a personal or organisational characteristic, not a business strategy.

Apple, unlike Google, or Facebook, or even Microsoft, is not a services company (as long-suffering iCloud/MobileMe/.Mac/iTools customs can attest), and so, to prescribe any sort of goodness to their decision to not retain user data is much less useful than an examination of what actually matters to their bottom line. And, as a hardware company, that means the supply chain. And that means people like Bibek Dhong. From Bloomberg Businessweek:

Staffing production lines in Malaysia, where 28 plants run by 24 companies worked on Apple contracts last year, usually goes this way: Companies tap an informal, largely unregulated, and transnational network of thousands of recruiters. They fan out, often hiring subrecruiters, into the farm fields and impoverished cities of Indonesia, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, and even into the Himalayas in Nepal. The positions they’re trying to fill are so coveted that they’re not merely offered, they’re sold. The brokers take fees from families, representing as much as a year or more of wages; frequently the fees are paid with loans that can take years to pay off… The hunt reached then-27-year-old Bibek Dhong on his mobile phone, while he was packing milk crates at a Kathmandu dairy to support his wife, a newborn daughter, and his extended family. The call would change his life.

The entire article is worth a read, and, as you might suspect, it doesn’t end well.

I don’t come to sit in judgment on Apple. How can I? After all, the very next article I read was this piece by Rick Reilly on the carnage that is American Football:

I see too much sorrow and ugliness to love football like I used to.

I watch Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck take a brutal lick now and I think of former Packers quarterback Brett Favre, who told a Washington radio show the other day he can’t remember most of his daughter’s soccer games. “That’s a little bit scary to me,” Favre said. “… That put a little fear in me.” He’s 44 years old.

I watch New England tight end Rob Gronkowski get up from wreck after wreck, and I think of former Colts tight end Ben Utecht, who said the other day he couldn’t remember being at a friend’s wedding until the friend showed him the photo album. See, you were a groomsmen. And you sang, remember? He’s 32 years old.

I watch Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson fling himself into crashing whirlpools of men and I think of former Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett, who said he sometimes finds himself driving on a highway and can’t remember where he’s going. “I’m just hoping and praying I can find a way to cut it off at the pass,” Dorsett said recently. He’s 59 years old.

I immediately set out to write a self-righteous tweet on how I’ve given up football, conveniently ignoring the fact I’m in Taiwan (football is only good live – which is 2 in the morning), and the fact I watched when I was in America. And then, the iOS 7 task switcher really brought my hypocrisy home:

Setting my fantasy football lineup one moment, feeling smug about not watching football the next
Setting my fantasy football lineup one moment, feeling smug about not watching football the next

Apparently the last thing I did before penning said self-righteous tweet was set my lineup for fantasy football, an activity that reduces flesh-and-blood humans risking their futures to the equivalent of Magic cards.

So much for a self-righteous screed.

I don’t know where morals and ethics sit in business, especially in technology, where we celebrate the idea of disruption and failure, giving no heed to the real world implications of what we are building, or how we are building it. Moreover, it’s not as if I’m going to give up my iPhone, or Google’s search, or any of the stuff I’d prefer to feel smug about. Heck, I can’t even give up fantasy football.

And yet, how will things change? How will they get better? How will technology be a force for good, instead of a tool for evil? I remain a technological optimist, but just. The power of software and the Internet is truly awesome, and we best start taking it – and our personal roles in that – seriously.