IN AN APPLE commercial that was on heavy rotation last fall, people go around telling strangers intimate information about themselves. “I browsed eight sites for divorce attorneys today,” a guy shouts to a bus full of passengers. A beautiful woman informs a passerby, “My home is in 1,000 feet.” A man in a bathroom stall announces, “I’m currently reading an article titled ‘10 Ways to Keep Sweaty Hands From Holding You Back.’” Finally, you find out what it’s selling: Apple’s privacy protections. “Some things shouldn’t be shared,” reads white text on a black background. “iPhone helps keep it that way.”
As something of a privacy enthusiast, I loved that commercial. It’s effective—more than 25 million views on YouTube—because it’s intuitive. You wouldn’t tell a coworker or a stranger on the street you looked at an embarrassing article, so why are you telling data brokers and ad tech companies?
The commercial exemplifies what I call the Peeping Tom theory of privacy, in which the essential concern is keeping creepy, voyeuristic companies, not to mention hackers and identity thieves, from knowing our secrets. Spend enough time at congressional hearings or privacy panels and you’re almost sure to hear someone raise the horrifying prospect of a targeted advertisement informing a woman, or, worse, her partner or parents, that she’s pregnant before they know themselves (a version of which actually happened in this classic 2012 New York Times story).
The pregnancy anecdote resonates because just about everyone knows what it feels like to see an online ad that seems a bit too well targeted. And yet the heavy focus on creepy marketing threatens to distract from the bigger picture. The events of the next year could go a long way toward determining how personal data is used in the US. In the private sphere, Apple and Facebook are publicly jousting over how much app developers should be allowed to track users by default. Meanwhile, more and more states introduce their own privacy bills, as Big Tech lobbyists urge Congress to pass a federal law to preempt them. The consequences of these battles go far beyond who can access your browsing history, your health records, or even your bank account.