Researchers Claim Apple’s Differential Privacy Approach is Inadequate (Sep 18, 2017)

Wired reports on a third party study which claims that Apple’s approach to differential privacy – the method Apple says it uses to obfuscate individuals’ data when uploading it to the cloud – is inadequate to really protect those users’ privacy. That study dug into Apple’s code and on that basis makes claims about the degree to which Apple has added noise to the data, that degree being the single biggest factor in determining how obscured the individual’s private information is. The authors claim that Apple’s differential privacy approach adds far too little noise to data to preserve privacy, while Apple has pushed back, saying that the approach used assumed that it treats all data the same way and that aggregating data across multiple categories would reveal more about users than looking at single data points, assertions Apple disputes.

One of the most telling lines in the article has one of the researchers saying that the DP approach is based on the assumption that companies will always behave badly, something Apple would clearly dispute too – it prides itself on protecting users’ privacy, generally doesn’t use business models which require it to collate data about users to target advertising, and requires users to opt in to any of this data gathering in the first place. As such, some of the assumptions being made by the researchers may be reasonable in general but not as applicable to Apple as to other companies. The fundamental issue here, though, is that Apple isn’t transparent about its approach, something I would guess it would attribute to competitive sensitivity, but which – like all company claims about privacy – requires users to take many of their privacy claims on trust. Whether you’re OK with Apple’s approach should therefore depend less on claims like those made by these third party researchers and more on whether you trust Apple overall when it comes to privacy. Surveys I’ve been involved with have generally shown high levels of trust on that point among Apple users and the population in general.


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