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Apple GDPR privacy protection will float everyone's privacy boat

With less than two months before the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation goes into effect, Apple is making notable changes in the name of user privacy. For everyone.

While all companies that collect data from EU data subjects will be subject to the GDPR, Apple has stepped up to announce that privacy, being a fundamental human right, should be available to everyone, including those outside the protection of the EU.

In a move that is raising hope for anyone concerned about data privacy, Apple GDPR protections will be offered to all Apple customers, not just the EU data subjects covered by the GDPR.

The new privacy features are part of Apple’s latest updates to its operating systems — macOS 10.13.4, iOS11.3 and tvOS 11.3 — released on Thursday. The most obvious change, for now, will be a new splash screen detailing Apple’s privacy policy as well as a new icon that will be displayed when an Apple feature wants to collect personal information.

More Apple GDPR support will come later this year when the web page for managing Apple ID accounts is updated to allow easier access to key privacy features mandated under the EU privacy protection regulation, including downloading a copy of all their personal data stored by Apple, correcting account information and temporarily deactivating or permanently deleting the account. The Apple GDPR features will roll out to the EU first after GDPR enforcement begins, but eventually they will be available to every Apple customer no matter where they are.

Apple GDPR protections for all

Speaking at a town-hall event sponsored by MSNBC the day before the big update release, Apple CEO Tim Cook stressed the company profits from the sale of hardware — not the sale of personal data collected on its customers. Cook also took a shot at Facebook for its latest troubles related to allowing improper use of personal data by Cambridge Analytica, saying that privacy is a fundamental human right — a sentiment also spelled out in the splash screen displayed by Apple’s new OS versions.

Anyone concerned about data privacy should welcome Apple’s move, but it may not be as easy for other companies to follow Apple’s lead on data privacy, even with the need to comply with GDPR.

The great thing about the Apple GDPR compliance for everyone move is that it shows the way for other companies: rather than attempting to maintain two different systems for privacy protections, companies can choose to raise the ethical bar for maintaining and supporting personal data privacy to the highest standard, set by the GDPR rules, or they can go to the effort and expense of complying with GDPR only to the extent necessary by law.

On the one hand there is the requirement for GDPR-compliance regarding EU data subjects, where consumers are granted the right to be forgotten and the right to be notified when their data has been compromised, among other rights. On the other hand, companies can choose to continue to collect and trade personal data of non-EU data subjects and evade consequences for privacy violations on those people by complying with the minimal protections required by the patchwork of less stringent legislation in effect in the rest of the world.

While a technology company like Apple can focus its efforts on selling hardware while protecting its customers’ data, it remains to be seen what the big internet companies — like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter — will do.

Companies whose business models depend on the unfettered collection, use and sale of consumer data may opt to build a two-tier privacy model: more protection for EU residents under GDPR, and less protection for everyone else.

As a member of the “everyone else” group, I’d rather not be treated like a second-class citizen when it comes to privacy rights.

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