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Not All Privacy Policies Are Created Equal

“Privacy policies actually tell you every way that [companies are] going to violate your privacy.” — Kashmir Hill


On this week’s episode of our podcast What’s The Point, I, your humble host, ask for forgiveness. The podcast has touched on questions of privacy over the past few months, and a listener has rightly pointed out that I’ve tended to conflate the approaches that companies like Apple, Google and Facebook take to privacy and data monetization. But it’s not that simple — those three companies, and others, have very different notions of privacy.

This week, Kashmir Hill of Fusion’s Real Future sets me straight and clarifies which company does what. To listen, stream or download the full episode that’s above, or subscribe using your favorite podcast app.

A few things I learned from the conversation are below — I hope they help you avoid the mistakes I made!

A privacy primer: Some things we learned from Kashmir Hill

Google and Facebook aren’t “selling your data.” The companies’ fundamental business is collecting data and figuring out things about you in order to sell your attention to advertisers, Hill said. “Google and Facebook don’t want to give your data up,” she said. “They have a really valuable resource — a monopoly around knowing about you — and they don’t want to just hand that over to another party. They’re selling your eyeballs.”

Privacy has become much more of a priority for companies. Both Google and Facebook have privacy teams that regularly meet with engineers and do privacy assessments of their products. And Apple now automatically encrypts important information on iPhones by default. “The government is freaking out about the fact that we now have end-to-end encryption in a lot of consumer products,” Hill said.

The U.S. doesn’t have a chief privacy official. Instead, Hill said, the Federal Trade Commission has “angled its way into being the privacy commission.” But since we recorded, that may have changed!

Privacy policies are more about protecting a company’s rights than yours. “People think when they see a privacy policy that ‘Oh good, I have privacy on this site,’” Hill said. “But privacy policies actually tell you every way that [companies are] going to violate your privacy. Once you agree to one, the company is basically legally protected as long as they just don’t do anything that they didn’t say they were going to.”

If you’re a fan of What’s The Point, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, and please leave a rating/review — that helps spread the word to other listeners. And be sure to check out our sports show Hot Takedown as well. Have something to say about this episode, or have an idea for a future show? Get in touch by email, on Twitter, or in the comments.

What’s The Point’s music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the “Song Exploder” podcast. Download our theme music.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.