One of the recent and more interesting marketing pivots Apple has done in recent years has been to bang the drum about privacy. I'm not naive enough to think Apple actually cares about its customer's privacy, but it is an incredibly powerful marketing tool either way. By attacking ad-driven business models and hard-baking privacy tools into iOS, Apple preys upon people's fears that Android isn't secure, and isn't private. By proxy, Apple is claiming that iOS and iPhone is the solution, against a backdrop of companies like Facebook, who play fast and loose with customer data.
Even if Apple is exploiting the fears for cynical reasons, the end results for the user are still a good thing. In our heavily connected, heavily surveilled world, anxiety about government and big tech overreach is at a fever pitch. And Microsoft has increasingly fallen on the wrong side of this argument.
At the Windows 11 event yesterday, Microsoft had an opportunity to meet some of these concerns, founded or not. Yet, it chose not to. As more and more of us become aware of how our data is being used and abused, Microsoft's marketing department effectively gave Apple another tool to attack Windows.
Android apps, forced Microsoft accounts, telemetry, oh my
I realize I'm playing into Apple's messaging by writing this article, but for the average privacy-concerned user, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about Windows 11 already. Microsoft has already been criticized extensively for the amount of data Windows 10 feeds back to the company, and it looks as though Windows 11 will continue the trend.
In Microsoft's Windows 11 blog post, the word "privacy" doesn't appear once in the copy, which doesn't exactly bode well for its messaging. Windows 11 will force users to use a Microsoft Account in its free Home Edition, which already speaks of a business model where your data is the monetization engine. Even if you're using the world's best VPN, it's not exactly going to protect your data from going directly to Microsoft if you're signed in. Apple has been keen to highlight how "free" services like Facebook are free only because you are the product being sold, and Windows 11 doesn't do anything to waylay these fears.
Microsoft is also enlisting another doubted tech giant, Amazon, to bring Android apps to Windows 11. Amazon is under heavy scrutiny already for the way it treats its workers among other things, but combining this with Android adds another layer of concern. Android is oft-painted as an insecure, privacy-apathetic platform. True or not, the prospect of an Amazon-fronted Android subsystem in Windows 11 compounds data fears.
Will Amazon start using my Windows 11 habits and browsing history to target psychologically exploitative ads at me? Will installing TikTok on Windows 11 give it access to my file system and contacts? Will Microsoft Teams shell integration be used to build a profile on me and my friends? It might seem paranoid, but these are legitimate questions that Microsoft hasn't addressed.
You need only jump into any random Twitter or Reddit thread to find examples of people worried about Windows 11 in a privacy context. If the fears are unfounded, Microsoft hasn't done a good job of waylaying them. But that's just it — are the fears founded?
Does Windows 11's privacy tools go far enough?
Since Windows 11 will essentially require a Microsoft account for most users, data harvesting is part of the package. Microsoft always says this is to enhance the user experience, and on the face of it that certainly seems to be true. In Windows 11, you'll be able to continue editing cloud files per its algorithmically populated "Recommended" section in the new Start Menu. Your browser history will sync between Edge on PC and Edge on mobile, as it already does. Your Skype and Teams conversations will sync as you'd expect too, and your Windows 11 features will migrate to new PCs if you upgrade.
Microsoft provides a privacy dashboard on its account website to help you manage your search and browser history, as well as the information Cortana has on you (for all three people who actually use it). You can clear your location history, and manage your app data too.
I'd argue that this dashboard doesn't go far enough in terms of letting you manage all of your privacy settings from a single place. Some of these have to be toggled using the Windows 10 settings menu, and can't be blocked via the web privacy dashboard. Digging through each individual setting to figure out which privacy settings do what is relatively complicated, and the privacy section in the Windows 10 settings menu doesn't even include everything you'd need to properly manage it.
A large amount of the features and apps in Windows 10 already dial home to Redmond, feeding diagnostics data and other information to the company. I've written before about how telemetry over old-fashioned QA has sucked the human touch out of Microsoft's design practices, but that's another matter entirely. Is Microsoft's harvesting of this data justified? Is it really necessary? Does it enhance the end-user experience? If so, how? Otherwise, it just feels like more bloat that can be used for marketing purposes.
A changing digital landscape
Windows 11 in some ways is the anti-Apple OS. Microsoft used words like "democratization" and "creator sovereignty" to describe its approach to development on the platform. Microsoft will take an unprecedented 0% cut from its app store for companies bringing in their own monetization vehicles, while matching the Epic Game Store's industry-leading 12% for games. On iOS, Apple takes a rather huge cut from its creators and developers, on top of its already lucrative hardware margins.
Privacy advocacy should be the default position, especially in a world where companies like Facebook have willfully failed repeatedly to protect customer data.
Apple shouts about privacy to paint itself as some kind of hero, but the way it price gouges its devs, selectively enforces its monetization rules, and stifles competition by banning services like Xbox Game Pass speak in opposition. Whether Apple is exploiting privacy fears cynically for marketing or not is irrelevant: Privacy advocacy should be the default position, especially in a world where companies like Facebook have willfully failed repeatedly to protect customer data, with minimal penalties or consequences.
Microsoft and Apple should stand shoulder to shoulder on privacy. I think Microsoft's inability to address privacy yesterday was either worryingly tone deaf, or worryingly intentional. If I were Microsoft's marketing department, I would take a look at how to address this potential concern before Apple or other competitors start exploiting it before Windows 11 even gets a chance to get out of the gate.
On a personal level, I'm completely apathetic to privacy stuff at this point. I've been using all of these apps and services for years, to the point where I've just sleepwalked into acceptance of a life without digital privacy. I don't really have anything to hide, but to some degree it's beside the point — it's a moral, human rights issue.