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Apple Swears Its Newest Data Gathering Tool Won’t Get Personal

(Youtube Screenshot: Cameron Nicholson)

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Eric Lieberman Deputy Editor
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Apple is developing a new data collection feature known as “differential privacy” to essentially track and compile users’ operating tendencies, but contends this new system won’t analyze any specific individuals.

The new technology will go live in a fall update to Apple’s operating system, iOS. While Apple has not released the technical details on how the new software will exactly work, Craig Federighi, senior vice president of software engineering at the company, expressed that it will help Apple “spot patterns on how multiple users are using their device,” which will enhance the customer service experience.

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During Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference in June, Federighi enlightened the audience on differential privacy. This data collection feature allows Apple to understand how many people use specific words or emojis without identifying any of the individuals using the slang or emoticons.

Federighi’s speech was heavily peppered with tech jargon, but the main point was clear: Apple will know more about the customer without compromising privacy.

Apple is playing catchup to the other big name tech companies like Google, which are more aggressive in data collecting practices.

Apple has “been kind of surpassed by other players who are bigger data collectors–Google would be a good example–in the machine-learning arena and personalization of user interface,” Daniel Barth-Jones, a Columbia University professor who studies the relationship between technology and privacy, told the Wall Street Journal.

Cynthia Dwork, a Microsoft researcher who co-authored the first major paper on the data collecting method many years ago, believes, “Using differential privacy will allow them to do significant machine learning while adhering to privacy promises that they made,” according to WSJ.

But a Microsoft spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal the company has no plans to utilize the technology.

“It requires a certain level of expertise. It needs a lot of careful thinking about your data,” said Arvind Narayanan, assistant professor of computer science at Princeton University.

Matthew Green, a cryptographer and professor at Johns Hopkins University, wrote a primer on the technology in his blog, and contends that “If Apple is going to collect significant amounts of new data from the devices that we depend on so much, we should really make sure they’re doing it right — rather than cheering them for Using Such Cool Ideas.”

Bruce Schneier, another highly-regarded cryptographer and computer scientist, for the most part agrees. “So while I applaud Apple for trying to improve privacy within its business models, I would like some more transparency and some more public scrutiny.”

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