Concerns over data privacy have made their way into the mainstream news. We as consumers now know that companies such as Facebook and Twitter collect a great deal of information about us and sometimes do sketchy things with that data. Some companies have started to use privacy as a selling point.
Sadly, computers and phones that offer privacy by default tend to come with a hefty price tag. Whether or not privacy should be a luxury good, it has become one.
A luxury good is a product that is both not essential to everyday life and largely associated with affluence. Luxury goods are not a rarity in the tech world. Many consumer gadgets begin as luxury goods, then transition over time. These products then continue on with budget, mid-range, and premium (or luxury) options.
New technology requires a large amount of research and development, so it makes sense for new hardware to be expensive. But privacy is not a product. Does everyone deserve privacy, or is it okay to reserve privacy only for those who can afford it?
Apple CEO Tim Cook has increasingly used privacy as a reason to buy MacBooks and iPhones since 2016, when Apple refused to help law enforcement circumvent the encryption of a locked iPhone related to the late 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino.
Apple contrasts its products with Google, whose business model requires collecting data. Apple is a hardware company that sells consumer gadgets and supplemental services. Google is an ad company that provides online services and also happens to sell hardware.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai has declared in a New York Times opinion column that privacy should not be a luxury good. He’s pushing back at Apple, whose products aren’t cheap. A new MacBook costs at least a grand. New iPhones cost nearly as much. If you have to buy Apple products to have privacy, that’s a price many people can’t afford.
“For everyone” is a core philosophy for Google; it’s built into our mission to create products that are universally accessible and useful. That’s why Search works the same for everyone, whether you’re a professor at Harvard or a student in rural Indonesia. And it’s why we care just as much about the experience on low-cost phones in countries starting to come online as we do about the experience on high-end phones.
Our mission compels us to take the same approach to privacy. For us, that means privacy cannot be a luxury good offered only to people who can afford to buy premium products and services. Privacy must be equally available to everyone in the world.
— Google CEO Sundar Pichai
Android phones and Chromebooks range wildly in price. Some sell for Apple prices, but there are budget phones that you can buy for under $100. Similarly, Chromebooks are typically the cheapest new laptop you can find, but a few premium models exist.
While Google products are cheaper than Apple’s, they suck up much more data. Google can highlight privacy-friendly features, such as the option to export your data or the newer ability to auto-delete data after a certain time, but the vast majority of Android and Chromebook users never dive this deeply into their settings.
By default, people who buy Google products give away a great deal of information about themselves to Google.
It’s fair to call Apple hardware more private than Google’s, but that isn’t saying much. The code on Apple devices remains a black box. Plus Apple pushes you to use online services and apps that will collect data about you. An iPhone user who installs Amazon, Netflix, and Spotify is still giving away a great deal of data, even if iOS isn’t by default.
There are hardware companies that genuinely do take the issue of online privacy seriously. Purism is one such company. It’s a social purpose corporation that considers online privacy to be one of the social goods it’s helping contribute to the world. That’s all well and good, but the cheapest Librem 13 laptop from Purism costs hundreds more than the cheapest MacBook. Purism’s Librem 5 smartphone costs less to order than an iPhone, but not by much.
Other companies have tried to sell similarly expensive smartphones running modified versions of Android to the privacy-conscious market. Silent Circle’s Blackphone launched at over $600. The Blackphone 2 was even more expensive.
Affordable privacy-respecting hardware tends to target tinkerers and makers. A Raspberry Pi doesn’t collect data about you and costs around as much as dinner for two at a restaurant. But as great as the Raspberry Pi is, how many people do you know have any idea how to use one?
With enough know-how, you can take steps to make just about any computer more private. But even if you know how to kiss Windows or macOS goodbye and install Linux, is that a change you’re willing to make? And if you are, it’s much more challenging to do the same with your phone.
We here at MakeUseOf can publish all the guides on how to find or make more private hardware we want, but that’s not helpful if being on the wrong side of the digital divide makes people less likely to see that information.
Ad campaigns rarely push private hardware. Our public libraries and schools are just as likely to give the impression that tools from Apple, Microsoft, and Google are all that’s out there (no surprise when you consider how much tech companies spend lobbying governments all over the world).
It’s on us to share what we know, support private options when they appear, and demand more. Because when privacy is a luxury, data collection and targeted ads become the default business model. More companies will pry into our personal lives and store that information on often insecure servers, just waiting to be exploited. We’re all left more vulnerable.