We need new data privacy legislation, because Apple’s getting away with eroding your privacy

A sign at the Apple Store Union Square today. Apple claims all rights to use your image however they want, without your consent or permission. Photo by me.

I get that your personal data privacy protection probably isn’t high on your list of political priorities. It certainly isn’t high on my list. But it’s something that we need to talk about, because we’re witnessing the slow and gradual erosion of personal privacy as technology companies — fearless of public regulation—move into ever more personal and private spaces, while disguising the fact they do so.

Consider this sign at the Apple Store Union Square.

Please be advised:

Your voice and appearance may be recorded while you are visiting the Apple Store today. By entering, you are granting Apple Inc. and its partners permission to use your recorded likeness in all media, in perpetuity.

Thank you.

What? Why is this? What does this mean?

It’s a carefully crafted message, meant to alleviate your fears and anxieties rather than provoke them. They could have communicated a similar meaning in a way that would trigger our concerns:

Please be advised:

You and all of your actions will be recorded and stored while you are in our store. By entering, you’ve granted unlimited and irrevocable consent to us and anyone we choose to use you and your image in any advertising or media we choose—forever.

Thank you.

I hope that sounded a little scarier.

Apple’s sign is a wonderful piece of communication design. “Your voice and appearance” sounds more benign than “you and your actions,” even though there isn’t much of a difference — what else could you reasonably do in an Apple Store?

“Apple Inc. and its partners” also sounds much more friendly than “us and whomever we choose,” even though Apple hasn’t listed their partners or explained how they’re chosen. And “all media” is vague enough to not catch attention, even though Apple doesn’t release any media forms other than its own advertising.

This is not okay. Apple Stores exist to sell Apple’s products, and provide services to support those products. Apple Stores do not exist as opportunities for Apple to use its customers as part of their own marketing materials.

While I fully expect that Apple will be respectful of our privacy (because it’ll be bad for its brand image if it doesn’t), this is still an area of serious concern. The business incentive to use these images in advertising and tracking is far too great.

The realm of determining what constitutes as private and public — and therefore what is and isn’t fair game for businesses to exploit for their own advertisements — is something to be determined by the people, not by the corporations. Our political process is designed to fulfil that specific function.

I’m not expecting Congress or any of the state legislatures to propose and pass any concrete legislation now about privacy. But this is something that you need to know about.

You need to think about privacy and determine how you feel about your private life, and how you should be protected from the businesses trying to take advantage of you.

Then, when the issues comes up again (and I’ll bet you it will), you’ll be able to engage your political representatives about it.