More precisely: is it possible for a company such as Apple to encrypt users' data such that neither they nor anyone else can trace identities while still being able to monetize demographic data?

If technology and social media companies do not want to assist governments in tracking individuals' behavior why can't the demographic data sold for advertising be encrypted such that no external source can access individual identifiers? Some thing like the key identifier would self destruct if accessed, and advertisers would be sold only access to the system.

closed as primarily opinion-based by Stephane, Jedi, Rory Alsop Jun 26 '17 at 6:54

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    My guess is that the data loses value if it doesn't have identity associated with it. Identity would help in targeted advertisement. – Limit Jun 25 '17 at 23:47
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    Can you expand on your self destruct idea? I don't see how that could be implemented reliably at all. – Pascal Jun 25 '17 at 23:48
  • @Limit I agree that the value is in knowing a consistent identity. But why can't a system be designed that knew said identities and only allowed external access to aggregated meta data. For example, a company wants to advertise to men between the ages of 40 and 50. The task is submitted but the company is never allowed to know who viewed their advertisements. They would have to infer from change in sale or external surrogate profiles that the task had been executed as requested. What ever company designed the system would have the same access permissions as external clients. – MrE Jun 26 '17 at 1:49
  • @Pascal I have not idea how this could be implemented, I have no expertise in this area. – MrE Jun 26 '17 at 1:50
  • @MrE the idea is that if you asked Siri for something, Amazon or Expedia or somebody in the related domain would send you a personal deal which would be difficult to achieve without having the identity available. Also you would be interested in seeing if an ad sent to a person worked or not so that you can train your model better. This again needs an identity – Limit Jun 26 '17 at 2:05

Why doesn't Apple encrypt users data such that they cannot trace identities?

Well, if they're not supposed to be able to trace the identity of their users, the simplest solution would be to not store any user identifier with the data they collect. No encryption would be necessary.

OTOH, if they do store said identifier, then it's impossible to design a system that will allow Apple to access it, and deny legal access by government institutions such as the FBI, because Apple is bound by law to assist when lawful requests are made. They might fight such a request in court, but if they lose, then they must comply or face the consequences.

So what you're really asking is why they store personally identifyable information at all, and the answer to that is probably the one @Limit gave in his comment - it's valuable to them.

  • I think the question is more subtle. You want to store the information, but no one has access to it besides the system that holds the information. Apple cannot access it even though they created the system that stores it. – MrE Jun 26 '17 at 1:53
  • But that makes no sense. If there is a way for someone to get access to the stored information, then the someone can be legally forced to give it up. And if nobody can access the stored information, then what good is it? Why store it in the first place? Maybe if you gave a use case for such a scenario and asked how it could be implemented, instead of why it's not, we could provide satisfactory answers. – Pascal Jun 26 '17 at 7:36

If technology and social media companies do not want to assist governments in tracking individuals' behavior

I'm stuck right at the first "IF". :) Every single company wants to understand user behavior so that "they can better tailor their product / service / user experience" to that user (also read as: "sell more to the user based on that understanding").

Does this mean that the companies want to track user behavior - but they don't want to cooperate with their own government to do it? That'd be a bit of hypocrisy and as @pascal said, would be hard to defend in court (even when your primary service to the customers is based on privacy).

Selling access to the advertisers (with or without revealing key identifiers) is only one aspect of this activity. If as you say,

Apple cannot access it even though they created the system that stores it.

then the nature of the question changes. It presumes that Apple doesn't want to understand user behavior beyond the anonymous aggregations. In this age of hyper-narrow targeting, that would be a hard decision to take for any company. Also, when you collect sufficient quantity of non-key identifiers, it could easily get very close to identifying the individual.

Privacy is hard.

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