Report: Apple experiencing ‘internal conflicts’ over use of customer data

Former Apple employees told Reuters that an admired and feared trio of employees internally known as “privacy czars” exercises extreme control over privacy standards set forth by CEO Tim Cook, sometimes standing in the way of profitable new expansions to the company’s business model. One of these “czars” is Jane Horvath, a lawyer who previously served as Google’s global privacy counsel, focuses on legal and regulatory requirements after being hired to formalize privacy practices in the wake of 2011’s “locationgate” scandal. She works alongside Guy Tribble, vice president of software technology and a member of the original Macintosh team who is venerated by other Apple employees for his ties to Steve Jobs. Tribble devotes substantial amounts of his time to working closely with engineers on privacy issues, as does rising Apple star Erik Neuenschwander, who has been known to review individual lines of code to ensure engineers are following through on privacy agreements.
Former Apple employees said any collection of user data requires the blessing of all three czars and a top executive, forcing product managers to be in constant communication with the company’s privacy engineering and legal teams. Complicated matters end up before a senior vice president, with particularly sensitive questions going all the way to Cook. Disagreements over new uses of data typically take at least a month and have sometimes ended up taking more than a year, former employees said. Since Apple is primarily a device manufacturer, the company’s key principles of keeping customer data on their devices rather than on Apple servers, and isolating various types of data so they cannot be tied to customer profiles, set it apart from other Silicon Valley companies that heavily rely on user information for revenue.

But former employees who worked on the iAd platform said maintaining that distinction has been costly, with executives balking at granting advertisers access to iTunes data to sharpen ad targeting within iPhone apps. The iAd team made nearly a dozen pitches in the hopes of creating anonymous identifiers so advertisers could see which users had seen their ads, but the most executives would allow was a total count of how many users had seen the ad. “It was so watered down, it wasn’t even useful,” one of the ex-employees said. After failing to entice advertisers despite slashing the minimum buy-in required to participate, Apple announced this January that it would discontinue the ad network entirely.

Executive demands often require substantial extra efforts from engineers as well. An insistence that voice data on what users say to Siri is isolated from personally identifiable information required “major back-end surgery,” according to one former employee. Updates to the Mac’s Spotlight search also rubbed engineers the wrong way when privacy and engineering teams were ordered to find a way to give engineers the data they wanted on users’ search logs on Apple servers without raising privacy concerns. “The obvious reaction I’d have as a data person is, ‘This is insane,’” said an ex-employee who worked on the project.

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