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At CES, Facebook argues it's just as good on privacy as Apple

A privacy panel at the giant tech conference underscores how crucial the topic has become.

Facebook privacy chief Erin Egan (second from left) and Apple privacy chief Jane Horvath (center), talk privacy philosophy.
Angela Lang/CNET

Apple CEO Tim Cook has called privacy a "fundamental human right," while Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said "the future is private." At a CES 2020 panel discussion Tuesday that featured executives from both companies, privacy became a bragging right. 

Facebook was represented by Erin Egan, its chief privacy officer for policy, while Jane Horvath, Apple's global privacy senior director, represented the iPhone maker. They were joined at a privacy roundtable by Rebecca Slaughter, a Democratic commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission, and Susan Shook, Procter & Gamble's global privacy officer. 

Privacy is a hot topic, so it's no surprise the session was packed. About 470 people crowded into a room that normally seats 450, while 100 more were redirected to a different room where they could watch the proceedings on video. 

On several occasions, Egan said Facebook was just as protective of people's data as Apple is. Apple has used privacy protection as a selling point, and whenever Horvath mentioned one of Apple's privacy measures, Egan reminded the crowd that Facebook had the same practices in place. But she couldn't escape a fundamental tension in Facebook's business model: Its primary profits come from advertising that relies on user data. Apple's come from sales of gadgets. 

"At Facebook we have a different business model than Apple, but both business models are privacy protected," Egan said. "We're very committed to protecting privacy and our advertising business model."

Privacy has become a central issue at CES after years of backlash against tech giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook over how people's personal data is shared. Companies have heard the message and while the tech conference still focuses on gadgets, many tech companies have started using CES to talk about privacy. 

Horvath's appearance marked the first time since 1992 that an Apple executive was an official participant at the show. Last year at the annual tech gathering, however, Apple plastered a giant privacy-focused billboard over the convention center. 

On Monday, Facebook also used CES to announce an update to its Privacy Checkup tool. The social network is demoing the tool at the conference. 

Because Apple's business model isn't focused on advertising, it doesn't rely on people's data. That lets the company be more privacy-friendly. But Apple does use data from people's devices, like using conversations with Siri to improve its artificial intelligence technology.

Still, Apple doesn't face the same level of public scrutiny over privacy that Facebook does. The social network paid a record $5 billion fine to the FTC in 2019 for multiple privacy violations. At the panel, Facebook was determined to prove that it's just as good on privacy as Apple is.

"Everything that Jane [Horvath] said at Apple completely resonates with how we approach privacy at Facebook, so I don't want to repeat that privacy by design," Egan said, shortly after Horvath described how Apple has a team of privacy engineers and lawyers assigned to work on new products it creates. 

Horvath also described Apple's practices for minimizing data collection, like limiting its facial recognition algorithms to devices rather than running the data on Apple's servers. 

"All of your devices are smart, and know who's in a photo, but Apple doesn't," the Apple privacy chief said. 


Facebook privacy chief Erin Egan frequently compared its privacy practices to Apple's during the panel.

Angela Lang/CNET

Until last September, Facebook had been requiring people to opt out of its facial recognition tool, which it first introduced in 2017. Egan disputed Horvath's point about storing data on devices rather than the company's servers, arguing that it isn't necessarily more private because it's stored locally. 

"It's a different service we offer, but that doesn't mean that one is more privacy protected than the other," Egan said. "We are committed to privacy, we build privacy by design in all of our products, just like Jane."

The default difference

A key difference between Apple's and Facebook's approaches to privacy, however, lies in default settings. After Egan touted Facebook's newly updated Privacy Checkup tool, Slaughter, the FTC commissioner, challenged the company. 

Research has shown that people don't change their default settings, and it's the same for privacy settings.

"I am concerned about a universe where the entirety of the burden to protect one's data lies with the consumers," Slaughter said. "Even if consumers can walk through a privacy checkup, the amount of information that you have to process to figure out what is happening with your data is untenable for most consumers."  


Apple's Jane Horvath discussed how the company has settings to enable privacy by default on its devices.

Angela Lang/CNET

When Horvath described Apple's privacy-by-default approach, it marked one of the few times when the Facebook representative couldn't say her company's practice is the same. 

Apple's privacy chief noted that the company uses random identifiers in many cases. Even if the company collects data about its users, the information isn't tied to a person or a device. 

"We use differential privacy to inject noise into the dataset," Horvath said, referring to how the company randomizes user data.. "So that is one way that we're protecting the consumer, without making them make a choice." 

Apple used to collect data from random Siri audio by default but changed that to opt-out after The Guardian revealed that human contractors were listening to people's sensitive conversations.

Apple and Facebook have frequently clashed on privacy issues. Last January, Apple revoked Facebook developers' access to iPhone users after a TechCrunch report revealed the social network abused the privilege to gather research data from teens. 

In September, Facebook issued a statement on how it tracks user locations because Apple's iOS 13 update would start requiring permission every time an app was using a person's location data. 

The privacy one-upmanship left some panelists unimpressed.

Privacy wasn't properly protected, concluded Slaughter, the FTC commissioner, and will remain a never-ending battle as technology evolves.

Said Slaughter, "The amount of data that is collected about any individual in this room -- I don't think anyone could tell us directly who has what data about them and how it is used."