Apple’s Big Privacy Play

The real reason the tech firm returned to this week’s Consumer Electronics Show after a 28-year absence.

The biggest attraction at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show isn’t 5G, the latest in artificial intelligence, or autonomous car models. It’s the return of a fairly critical player: Apple.

The company appeared in a panel on privacy—which highlights the growing competitive edge Apple is seeking in what is a key worry for consumers of electronic products. The panel, called “What Do Consumers Want?,” featured Jane Horvath, Apple’s senior director of global privacy, as one of the speakers, marking the firm’s first main appearance at the show in 28 years. “Apple is clearly using privacy as a competitive differentiator,” says Kathy Vrabeck, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry in the Consumer Digital practice and a member of the firm’s Consumer Marketing Center of Expertise.

As consumers’ mistrust of how companies handle their data increases with each well-publicized breach, Apple is trying to sell its ability to better protect privacy as a way to drive business. Nowhere is that clearer than in its “Privacy on iPhone” ad campaign, where it reminds consumers that they have the right to control their data.

Jamen Graves, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who specializes in leadership and talent consulting and works with Apple, says the challenge for smartphone firms is increasingly to ensure that consumers’ data is safe on all the apps they use—an incredibly difficult task. In that regard, Apple’s so-called closed system gives it more control over what happens on its devices than Google’s Android, for instance. Users don’t have to use their Apple ID to log in to individual apps like Maps or Wallet the way they do on other systems, which adds a layer of anonymity to data collection.

Apple’s system also allows for more stringent restrictions on app developers; the company has removed numerous apps over privacy concerns over the years, including Facebook’s Onavo in 2018. In August, Apple raised the ire of app developers when it removed a key tracking feature from its new operating system.

While some critics claim that Apple’s strict policies are anticompetitive, Vrabeck says the bid to lead privacy is what forces the firm to hold outside developers to a higher standard. After all, by being so public about protecting privacy Apple is putting itself at risk, because consumers will certainly expect more from the company. “When you are putting a stake in the ground, there needs to be a higher level of accountability,” says Vrabeck.

For Apple, though, protecting privacy isn’t simply a marketing position but a major business concern, says Graves. “It doesn’t matter how cool the iPhone is, it won’t be enough if Apple doesn’t protect your privacy,” he says. “Apple sees privacy as a real threat to their business model, so they are keen to become the leading voice and supplier of the safest phones in the world.”