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Meet Apple’s secret and surprisingly powerful privacy team

Updated 4 years ago
Published Mar 21st, 2016 7:45AM EDT
Apple Secret Privacy Team

Controlling both the hardware and software gives Apple a unique marketing tool, that the company is exploiting to the fullest – though the recent squabble with the FBI shows that the iPhone maker is ready to walk the walk when it comes to enhancing the user’s privacy and security.

Because Apple makes money off of products whose software it also designs, it doesn’t feel the pressure of exploiting user data for personal gain, like other Internet companies whose revenues are tightly linked to sharing knowledge about customers with third parties for advertising purposes.

Apple’s unwillingness to transform personal data into a commodity is, thus, a feature of iOS and OS X that other operating systems do not have. And it turns out that Apple has a special team in place that oversees everything that’s related to user data and privacy. Comprised of three people who have other duties and responsibilities inside Apple, the group isn’t secret, but you don’t often hear about it in the news.

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Thanks to a new report from Reuters, we know a bit more about how Apple handles user privacy when it comes to launching new products. And it turns out the privacy team and other Apple employees are not always in agreement.

In order for any product to collect any type of data about the user, a committee of three “privacy czars” and a top executive has to be consulted.

Approval is not automatic, and talks can go back and forth for periods longer than a year, for certain products.

Products that are vetted this way include any app that collects data, including Siri and iAds.

The trio of privacy experts employs for this purpose include Jane Horvath, Guy “Bud” Tribble and Erik Neuenschwander.

Horvath, who worked as a global privacy counsel at Google before, is a lawyer who oversees the legal and policy aspects. She was hired in 2011 to formalize privacy practices in 2011 after it was discovered that iPhones were collecting data related to location.

Tribble, meanwhile, is one of the few Apple employees who was part of the original employees, whom other refer as one of the few who “had been to the mountain with Moses,” or worked closely with the late Steve Jobs.

Tribble is also the vice president of software technology, but apparently he devotes ample time to privacy, working closely with engineers on the matter.

Neuenschwander is described as a rising star inside Apple. He’s overseeing the work of engineers and often reviews lines of code to make sure they respect the agreed privacy guidelines.

Sources familiar with Apple’s privacy practices told Reuters that the privacy engineering and legal teams work closely with product managers early for a product. For complex matters, a senior vice president is coopted into talks, and sensitive questions reach Cook.

The privacy council makes sure that user data stays on the device rather than on Apple’s servers, and that user data can’t be collected in bulk to form profiles of customers.

These firm privacy policies aren’t necessarily appreciated by certain software engineers who’d like to put in place mechanisms that can collect data, which can be of use later down the road, rather than discard it. Debates over privacy can last for a month, but they can go on for more than a year in certain cases.

It’s because of Apple’s inflexible privacy guidelines that its iAds advertising platform didn’t take off. Apple did not want to offer advertisers more information – even the anonymous kind – to paying customers, and iAds was recently closed. At most, Apple’s privacy “czars” would let advertisers see how many users had seen an advertisement.

Other features, required tough workarounds, Reuters says.

For Siri, Apple’s privacy team insisted that voice data on what users say to Siri is stored separately from personally identifiable information. “That was a major back-end surgery,” the former employee said about the matter.

Similarly, when OS X’s Spotlight search feature received a major update in 2014, the privacy team insisted that search logs would be kept on Apple’s servers in a way that it would not raise privacy concerns. “The obvious reaction I’d have as a data person is, ‘This is insane,'” said a former employee who worked on it.

Apple’s stance on privacy and security got it in legal troubels with the FBI. The company’s insistence on guarding user privacy at all costs clashes with the FBI’s needs to extract information from a device belonging to a known criminal with terrorist ties. A court hearing in the case is scheduled for March 22nd.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he closely follows the events in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises. Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.