Apple’s data auction privacy ad is only scary because it’s true

Ellie is like all of us; just a person browsing through the latest deals in a classic vinyl music store, who then discovers a door and a hidden auction where a multitude of what could best be described as dandies are anxiously bidding on his private data.

Yeah, seems normal. Apple uses this slightly comical, but mostly eerily accurate advertising depiction of data brokers at an auction house called “DUBIOUS” to illustrate a point: This is what happens to your data.

In the advertisement, which is titled “Your data is sold!” and is posted online and aired on Wednesday, Ellie is clearly shocked and appalled as everything from her late-night texts to her grandmother (“Sweet Nana”) are auctioned off to data brokers. Since this is an ad for Apple, Ellie throws a secret weapon.

She pulls out her iPhone 13 and clicks “Ask Not to Track” for an app and the anthropomorphized data and data brokers start disappearing. Ellie also adjusts Safari’s privacy settings and soon the dodgy auction house is empty.

It’s effective advertising, although a bit on the nose. But this is not inaccurate.

A given website has dozens of trackers (usually hidden under transparent pixels) that allow data you drop off on one site to be transferred to another (which is why once you search for red shoes on a site, you see “red shoes” on each site).

Likewise, app developers have (and often still sell) your tracking data to third-party data brokers. Apple’s App Privacy Program now requires app developers to ask your permission to track your data. So many people have opted out of these new settings, that it’s often cited in less-than-stellar revenue reports for companies like Facebook.

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Apple said the purpose of hyperbolic advertising is to highlight potential uses of data, ones you’re likely unaware of.

The company’s commitment to privacy is not only evident in this advertisement and in Apple’s various privacy-related and anti-tracking features, but also in what its management says on the subject.

Speaking to the International Association of Privacy Professionals earlier this year, Apple CEO Tim Cook said: “A world without privacy is less imaginative, less empathetic, less innovative, less human.” and noted that Apple is “committed to protecting people from a data-industrial complex built on a foundation of surveillance.”

In the case of this ad, however, this “data industrial complex” is a cliched auction house with real people bidding on physical items that represent Ellie’s data. Still, we get the point.

Apple, which has never derived its revenue from ads or customer data, is in an enviable position to approach the issue of data privacy from a higher perspective. He can report Google’s or Facebook’s data practices (although rarely, if ever, by name) because he doesn’t need that data.

Even Apple’s fast-growing services business relies on direct subscription payments, which means it doesn’t need your data for revenue or growth.

Either way, enjoy this somewhat comical announcement.

Also, if you want to know how to manage these settings, you can read our guide to app transparency and our guide to controlling iPhone location services.

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