There’s this photo of my kids in the bath that, well, I’d rather not tell you about. I mean, it’s incredibly cute and I’d love to show it to you, but I’m also a private person, so it wouldn’t be right to go into details. But I will say this: though it’s one of my favorite possessions, this picture doesn’t physically exist.
It’s not in a frame, and I don’t even have a print of it. It’s just a series of ones and zeros sitting on a server, somewhere in the world. And when I get my new iPhone X, I’ll probably immediately pull it up to look at it on Apple’s gorgeous new fullscreen display and remark how fast the kids have grown. A cliché, I know, but that doesn’t make it any less true. I can’t help myself — that’s how adorable this photo is.
As precious as this image is, I don’t have it stored on a flash drive attached to my keychain, or in some other ultra-safe place. Instead, it’s housed on a server in some unknown probably dank and sunless location. That’s no casual decision. I’ve put considerable time and thought into how I store my photos in general, as well as how I back up my information overall. Despite all the bottomless storage features offered by tech giants like Google and Amazon, I default to keeping my most valuable data with Apple. Why I chose this matters, so let’s talk about it.
First and foremost, there’s the issue of these companies’ business models. The goal of each outfit is to make the most money it can for its shareholders, naturally, and in that sense Apple — pricing its products at a premium — is the most visible example of the maxim. But $1,000 iPhones and pricey accessories aside, at least the company is only buttering its bread on one side.
Google, by contrast, not only sells phones and other devices, but also makes money off the ads (and the user data) that appear on those handsets, laptops and tablets. Amazon’s gadget-oriented business model wants to sell you things (like Amazon Echos) that will help sell you more things (through voice ordering) — a dizzying value proposition. And then there’s Facebook, which doesn’t appear to be selling its users much of anything at this point. But look more closely and you discover Facebook’s users (and their kids’ bath time photos) are themselves the products unwittingly feeding the social network’s revenue model.
The second reason I trust my kids’ naked baby photos to Apple is the company’s longstanding commitment to privacy. Succinctly outlined on Apple’s new privacy website, the company’s stance on keeping a lid on data has been catalogued not only in its marketing materials, but in its posture toward groups looking to crack its products’ embedded security. Proactivity and transparency are undervalued but essential character traits of any company I care to do business with in 2017. (That’s something I’ve come to realize in the wake of the Equifax hack.)
Remember 2016’s Apple versus the FBI dust-up, which nearly turned security protocols into a question of Constitutional rights? While you can argue over Apple’s pro-encryption stance from a law enforcement perspective, what’s inescapable is the company’s commitment to keeping its users’ data locked down. Critics of Apple at the Justice Department called its fight with the FBI a marketing ploy — a claim the iPhone maker disputes. Whether you believe the company or not, Apple has only made its security stronger since then.
One way it’s done so is through a technology called differential privacy. The idea behind this complex consumer protection is that through the use of cloud computing, small gadgets like iPhones can tap remote computers to have capabilities that are much bigger than their portable sizes might otherwise allow. Consider a cloud computing paradox: to get the most out of the cloud, remote servers require data — the more granular the information, the better. But data, if it’s somehow viewed or intercepted, can unmask the sender. By using differential privacy, Apple injects “noise” into its bits and bytes, rendering this information useless to third parties who might otherwise be able to view it.
Wired recently explored research by a team of experts that had deconstructed Apple’s code and found its differential privacy practices to be lacking, a characterization that the company strongly disputes. But even these experts call Apple’s implementation a “good first step.” It also bodes well that the company is deploying this technology for personal data as important as my health tracking metrics and as trivial as my emoji preferences—something I doubt its competition is doing, though Google uses differential privacy in its Chrome browser, Wired points out. Still, I’d rather have a well-intentioned system that’s not yet perfect for my family photos’ sake, than one designed to monetize my data from the outset.
Of course photo security is a sensitive subject for Apple. One of the company’s biggest black eyes came in 2014, when hundreds of celebrities’ accounts were hacked and their private photos were scattered across the Internet. While most certainly bad news for Apple, the method that experts believe the hackers used to crack the company’s iCloud service was simple phishing emails, which were designed to trick recipients into disclosing the passwords of their accounts.
Obviously the phishing expedition worked (though only to a point, because the perpetrators are still being caught and charged, as recently as this week), and Apple’s system shares blame for being so easily exploitable. But the company reacted by making much-needed changes to its security, including the implementation of two-factor authentication, which greatly reduces the likelihood that a fraudster will take over your account.
I realize locks only keep honest people out, and as long as tech companies pursue better security solutions, hackers will try to break them. Still, Apple’s singleminded focus on locking down its systems justifies the premiums it charges for its products, to me at least.
Not that I’d pay any price, of course. As the iPhone X’s sticker price soared over $1,000, even I paused. But then I thought of all the systems working to make this device digitally impenetrable, security apparatuses that weren’t needed when the world-changing smartphone first arrived 10 years ago. All of these things are working in concert to make the iPhone X the most secure Apple product yet. And I can’t wait to stretch that photo of my kids across its glorious new screen. It’ll be really something — and I’m glad you won’t be able to see it.
John Patrick Pullen has written about smart devices and home automation for TIME and Fortune since 2009. His column, “Tech in Real Life,” appears weekly on TIME.com and explores the ways that technology impacts people in their daily lives. He lives (in a home that’s much smarter than he is) in Portland, Oregon.
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