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posted: 10/3/2015 6:38 AM

What Apple's revamped privacy policy website means for you

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  • Customers line up as they wait for the release and sale start of the new Apple iPhone 6S at an Apple store on Chicago's Magnificent Mile.

    Customers line up as they wait for the release and sale start of the new Apple iPhone 6S at an Apple store on Chicago's Magnificent Mile.
    associated press

 
 

Fire up the new Apple News service for the first time on your iPhone, and it'll ask for your favorite topics and news outlets. Use it over time, and you'll find that it is behaving like your personal news recommendation engine.

Read a lot about gardening, and you'll see more stories about hardy perennials. Click on every story about the Red Sox? Get ready for more bullpen analysis. But eventually you may start to wonder -- just how much does this app know about me?

You may think you know the answer, given that we live in a world where our every click and scroll is obsessively tracked by tech companies eager to sell us personalized ads. Apple, too, has been using its targeted advertising service in apps sold on the iTunes store since at least 2010, though that business is a small one, the company says.

In a revamped privacy policy website, a copy of which was reviewed by The Washington Post, Apple on Tuesday attempted to lay out how its philosophy on data collection splits from its tech industry rivals.

In essence, the company said is telling customers it is not interested in their personal data, even as it must use more of that data to deliver personalized products.

"We knew coming in that building a personalized news product could be very sensitive -- and the first thing we thought about was we really don't want to associate news with your personal Apple account," says Jane Horvath, Apple's senior director of global privacy.

Apple News, which can deliver a stream of headlines right onto one of the home screens of the iPhone, launched this month into a crowded space. Tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Twitter have long been using algorithms to serve piping hot headlines from the Web to consumers while tying their reading habits into the vast trove of data the companies keep on every user.

Apple's offering is different in that its stories are also curated by a small team of journalists working at the company's headquarters in Cupertino. And the company hopes a selling point will be its pledges that it will protect people's privacy.

"We don't build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers," chief executive Tim Cook wrote in a letter introducing its privacy website. "We don't 'monetize' the information you store on your iPhone or in iCloud."

The news service app, for instance, collects data on what each user is reading so it can offer personalized headlines and ads. But the service does not tie reading habits to an Apple account and uses a unique identifier -- this functions only within the News app -- to provide information to advertisers. When readers clear their history in the app, the information is deleted, Apple said.

Apple details how the system works in a revamped section of the company's website dedicated to privacy and set to publish on Tuesday.

The site reads like an educational campaign for Apple's privacy philosophy. Others such as Facebook have also tried to write data use policies in everyday language, but Apple's attempt is notable for being clear while not shying away from the technical details. To keep from overwhelming users, it is broken down into several sections -- some old, some new.

Apple, which makes most of its money from selling gadgets rather than services, has been betting hard on privacy in recent years, pitting itself against a tech industry that largely relies on monetizing personal information. Cook struck a similar tone in June when accepting an award from the Electronic Privacy Information Center via livestream.

"I'm speaking to you from Silicon Valley, where some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information," he said. "They're gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it. We think that's wrong."

The privacy pitch has also put the company at odds with police and Obama administration officials, who have publicly complained about Apple's move to make it impossible for the company to turn over data from most iPhones or iPads -- even when the authorities have a search warrant.

But as Apple has dug in on privacy, the company has grappled with how to deliver the convenient experiences customers have come to expect from devices and Web services. And it's not even clear how much consumers understand -- or care -- that their personal data is part of the fundamental economic trade-off that powers many of the "free" services available online such as email and social networks, privacy experts said.

Almost everything done online can be tracked. That's the reason the shoes you were looking at buying online suddenly seem to start popping up in ads on nearly every site you visit.

Smartphones raised the stakes in the online advertising industry because they allow companies to collect an even more information about what people are doing, such as where they are or who they call the most.

Now tech companies are asking for consumers to trust them with more and more sensitive connections, including digital payments, health information, driving data from cars and information from connected devices in your home that could be hanging on your every word.

Apple, already a dominant player in the mobile device marketplace, is now pushing into products and services that require more data. With HomeKit and CarPlay, Apple is trying to enter the market for home- and car-connected devices. Apple Music, Apple Maps and its digital assistant, Siri, are other products that rely on consumer behavior to improve.

These services may be a reason Apple is investing so much time in explaining to consumers why they should care about privacy.

"It's important for Apple because it's a business differentiator," said Rich Mogull, chief executive of Securosis and an analyst who has covered Apple for nearly a decade.

"When consumers are educated they do care about privacy," he added.

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