Apple returns to CES to talk privacy, not products

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For the first time in 28 years, Apple is participating in CES, the world’s largest technology conference.

But the iPhone maker isn’t in Las Vegas this week to introduce a new product. It’s going there to preach about privacy.

Jane Horvath, Apple’s senior director of global privacy, participated in a standing-room-only session on Tuesday titled “Chief Privacy Officer Roundtable: What Do Consumers Want?” The panel also featured Erin Egan, Facebook’s VP of public policy and chief privacy officer for policy; Susan Shook, global privacy officer of Procter & Gamble; and Rebecca Slaughter, a Federal Trade Commissioner.

“At Apple, the way we define privacy is to put the consumers in the driver’s seat,” Horvath said at the session. “They should have control over their data, they should have choices over their data.”

The panel marked Apple’s unofficial return to the show for the first time since former CEO John Sculley debuted the Newton personal digital assistant in 1992.

Privacy is a hot topic at CES this year. Several of the biggest tech companies attending the tech conference this week are putting a special emphasis on user privacy, following years of mounting scrutiny from regulators and consumers over the industry’s handling of personal data.

Egan defended Facebook at Tuesday’s session as a privacy-focused company. She pointed to Facebook’s updated “Privacy Checkup” tool, announced this week, which walks users through key privacy settings.

“You can offer a privacy-protected ad business model, and we do,” she said. Some of her comments drew audible snickers from members of the audience. The social media giant has been plagued with privacy concerns in recent years and has faced a long list of scandals.

FTC Commissioner Slaughter pushed back on tech companies during the session, and said she’s concerned about the onus being placed on consumers when it comes to data privacy.

“It’s also important that we think about ways that the burden be placed not just on the consumer, but that the collectors and stewards of data have the responsibility to minimize what’s collected, minimize what’s retained … without creating this endless trove of data,” she said.

Although Apple didn’t have an official presence last year, it threw shade at rivals with a billboard overlooking the Las Vegas Convention Center that said: “What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone”.

Apple has hammered on its dedication to privacy as a marketing pitch in recent years, with CEO Tim Cook repeatedly calling privacy a fundamental human right. Cook also told CNN that he wants governments around the world to restrict how much data companies can collect from their customers.

But that doesn’t mean Apple hasn’t had privacy issues of its own.

Last year, the company apologized for allowing contractors to listen to commands that users gave to its voice assistant Siri without informing users that it was doing so. The company also pledged changes, including requiring users to opt in to having their recordings listened to by human reviewers, rather than having this be the default. Amazon has similarly been criticized for listening to Alexa user recordings.

It’s also faced its share of security flaws with the iPhone. For example, with the release of the iOS 13 operating system in September, contact details stored in iPhones were exposed without requiring a passcode or biometric identification.

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