Apple believes privacy is a “fundamental human right,” or so
CEO Tim Cook told CNN in the wake of WWDC last spring. He
condemned the data collection spree he saw from competitors as
“out of control,” and he worried that “most people” have no
idea how often they’re being tracked.
Bold words, yes. It was easy to admire Apple in the moment.
They were words we needed to hear—wanted to
hear—particularly in a decade rocked by the Cambridge Analytica scandal
and data breaches at companies like Uber and Yahoo, to say
nothing of Google’s habit of sifting through our Gmail in order
to better pepper our browsing experience with ads. Against such
a backdrop, Apple looked like a knight in shining, brushed
But I find they’re also overly bold words in an era that sees
Apple inflating its prices year by year, lifting its devices
and their privacy ever farther out of reach of the humble
budgets of “most people.” As my colleague Michael Simon
pointed out, the most recent increases amounted to around
$150 a product over the counterparts from the previous year.
These price increases aren’t just painful for the wallet;
they’re painful for anyone who understands that privacy the
single irrefutable reason to prefer Apple devices all over all
Yes, Apple’s design is fantastic. Yes, the iPhone is a
wonderful overall phone. But these days it’s harder to trumpet
every feature of an iPhone as superior to a competitor. The
Google Pixel 3 has a better camera, for one, and numerous
Android phones manage to have always-on displays devouring
their batteries. For that matter, crappy Windows laptops have
long tended to do a better jobs of running video games than
Apple’s high-end MacBooks.
But privacy? No one can really touch Apple on that. Time and
time again it’s shown that it means business. The wide public
probably knows this best from Apple’s
famous resistance to unlocking iPhones for the FBI, or the
way that Apple only stored your Touch ID fingerprint on the
device itself. But it goes far deeper. Apple now includes
anti-fingerprinting software and Intelligent Tracking
Prevention in both iOS and macOS, which stops data collectors
from tracking your movements and handling your data. It now
includes File Vault 2 on all Macs, encrypting your files. Apple
does send off data of its own, of course, but a recent study found that Apple collects
10 times less data than what Android devices ship off
to Google, and even then Apple includes protections that keep
Apple from knowing it came from a particular device.
Not so fast, private
Too bad, then, that this moral high ground isn’t really
inspiring Apple to lead a revolution in data privacy by
releasing low-end devices. In fact, Apple’s
most recent quarterly report revealed how rising device
prices were causing the Cupertino giant’s revenues to soar even
in times when iPhone sales remained flat. Too bad, too, that we
see this from a company that once claimed it wanted to “make a
contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that
advance humankind.” Apple’s price inflation is making privacy a
luxury of the privileged. And that’s not advancing mankind at
all—hell, that’s essentially the way things have always been.
Consider this: Privacy isn’t just about buying expensive
gadgets that keep your personal data safe. It’s also about
being able to drive cars to work rather than taking buses. It’s
about having a massive house with a security system rather than
a cramped apartment. Personal choice factors into these
arrangements at times, but most of the time they’re decided by
wealth. And at a time when houses and cars are increasingly
hard to obtain by younger Americans, Apple seems hell-bent on
keeping its privacy-protecting devices similarly farther out of
reach as well.
The problem intensifies the more heavily you invest in Apple’s
ecosystem. Let’s say you start with an iPhone, which then leads
you to buy a MacBook Pro to enjoy its greater privacy as well.
Beyond that, perhaps you’ll want to get an iPad (and Apple
Pencil!) for your kid. Heck, you might as well buy a HomePod,
too, as it transmits far less data than the inexpensive smart
speakers from Google and Amazon. At the very least, you’re
easily looking at more couple thousand dollars at this point.
It gets worse every year, and I’m convinced that Apple is
approaching a ceiling for how much customers will pay. I don’t
think we’re there yet, but we’re getting too close for comfort.
Is there hope?
If Apple was serious about granting everyone access to data
privacy, it would release more products aimed at low-end
buyers. I say “more” in part because I see hints that Apple is
at least trying to placate slimmer wallets, as we’re no longer
dealing with the blatantly luxury-minded Apple of the $10,000
Apple Watch Edition.
Instead, we see Apple releasing a $329 iPad aimed at students,
which even includes support for the Apple Pencil (which used to
be limited to the much pricier iPad Pro). Most recently, we saw
Apple release the iPhone XR, which came out the same year as
the flagship iPhone XS but costs $250 less and differs mainly
in cosmetics. These are still pricey devices, but they hint at
a humbled Apple–but not one that’s so humbled that it’ll
consider updating a device like the iPhone SE.
In fact, it’s harder to see similar trends with the new
MacBook Air. It’s a great laptop, but it’s still $1,200
laptop and nothing like the “low-cost” MacBook aimed any
schools that a lot of people were hoping for. It’s likely a
“good investment,” but that doesn’t mean much when you’re a
student who’s already frightened about student loans and making
rent. Instead, you might be tempted (and with good reason) to
get a perfectly capable Dell XPS 13 for $899 or an Asus Zenbook
for $749. Heck, you might even consider getting an Acer R3
Chromebook for around $400. But none of these devices will keep
your data as safe as a MacBook.
A force for good
We need to see more. We need to see better. Tim Cook has said
that he sees Apple has a “force for good,” and I buy into that. I
admire the company’s environmental initiatives, as well as its
attempts to make its devices useful for health care without
attempting to monetize the associated services.
But in an age where we see the adverse effects of corporations
mishandling user data every day, in an age when our personal
data is used to manipulate us and turn us against one another,
and in an age where passwords too easily grant access to our
whole lives, Apple could arguably do no better good than make
greater efforts to keep its products accessible to a wider
As it is, Mr. Cook, it won’t be long before those prices are
“out of control” and therefore out of reach.