What will you trade for convenience? In this era of online life, the common answer seems to be “everything” — and that’s assuming people understand they’re making an exchange at all.
Facebook, by far the world’s most dominant social network, has built its fortunes on a complex ad-targeting system that harnesses the data provided by its users. And it’s reportedly working to integrate its diffuse messaging services — offered by WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger — on a core platform that could make it much easier for the company to learn about, and market to, billions of people who presume to be talking to one another in private. Meanwhile, it’s no big secret that Amazon is leveraging the information generated by shoppers, third-party vendors, and even open-source software developers to gain a competitive edge and extend its reach in arenas it already dominates. When it’s easy for you to use these services, it’s easy for them to grow.
Enter Apple, with its new “Sign-in” service unveiled at a conference for developers this week. The feature promises to make security easy when it launches in the fall: Click a new “Sign In with Apple” button rather than manually logging into a service like, say, Medium, and the company will authenticate your identity, register your account via a new, anonymous email service, and allow you to dive right in without all the fussy typing-in of passwords you’d endure otherwise. It promises to snip the strands tying your identity to your personal email account, limiting the creepily accurate ad-targeting we’ve normalized through years of convenient social networking and Google searches. But while that’s a noble purpose, Apple itself gets something out of the exchange: A new lock and key to bind you to its own platform.
Though Sign In with Apple will technically work across the web, it will be at its best on your iPhone, where a quick check with Face or Touch ID will open the locked doors of whatever services enable the feature. There will be quite a lot of them, as Apple will require iOS developers to offer the feature wherever rival sign-in features from Facebook and Google are present. Many users will grow accustomed to the convenience of Sign In with Apple on their iPhones — and that will make leaving the so-called “walled garden” even harder.
Put another way, if you become a dedicated Sign In with Apple user, it will make even less sense for you to ever make the switch to a competing Android phone down the line. If you did, you would encounter an array of Sign In with Apple prompts that ask you for credentials tied to your Apple account, similar to logging into your Facebook and Google profiles, though perhaps you’re less accustomed to accessing your Apple ID. You’d miss the easy Face ID login, as suddenly a one-touch sign-in process became onerous.
Not for nothing, Sign In with Apple also presents another opportunity for a monolithic tech corporation to consolidate your data.
Of course, when people begin to associate convenience of Sign In with Apple with their iPhones, they’ll be less tempted to switch to begin with. This feature, like the blue bubbles of iMessage before it, is another Jenga block yanked from the base; eventually, the structure will be so delicately arranged that you will do nothing to upset its architecture. Move a piece yourself, by switching devices or login methods, and the entire tower will fall, leaving you to pick up and rearrange the pieces: not an impossible task, but a frustrating and lengthy one. Inconvenient, in other words.
Not for nothing, Sign In with Apple also presents another opportunity for a monolithic tech corporation to consolidate your data. When it comes to your privacy, Apple has a considerably better track record than, say, Facebook or Google — but Sign In also follows a substantial business pivot away from selling hardware and toward providing “services” like Apple TV+, Apple Arcade, Apple News+, and the forthcoming Apple Card from Goldman Sachs. Apple didn’t have much to gain from leveraging your data for profit when it was primarily a vendor of exceptionally pricey stuff. We can only hope it maintains some measure of ethics in the coming years as its profit motive orients toward making and marketing original television programs, movies, and editorial content — all of which would benefit from Apple knowing as much as possible about its users.
The issue here isn’t that Sign In with Apple is particularly nefarious or even a bad choice for consumers. To the contrary, its convenient security features promise a much-needed and arguably improved alternative to the gigantic online marketing apparatus dominated by Facebook and Google. But there remains this insidious thread in consumer technology where companies attempt to stitch customers into the fabric of their products, limiting their ability to move to a competitor at any time, for any reason. It’s present here, it’s present in a folding phone; it’s just about everywhere.
A prevailing concern in tech today is oneness — or the idea that some digital force will come to define every part of how we do business and talk to each other online. This is the idea motivating antitrust probes into the so-called “Big Four” tech companies (Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Google) as they move to expand their services to the people who use the internet. It’s implicit in the argument of these same companies that breaking them up would leave the online world to be conquered by Chinese monoliths that face no restrictions on their appetite for growth.
“We must give people more control over how their personal information is collected, shared, and sold — and do it in a way that doesn’t lock in massive competitive advantages for the companies that already have a ton of our data,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate, wrote in a Medium post about her plan to break up major tech corporations.
As the Verge’s Casey Newton suggested on Wednesday, Apple’s ears might have perked up at this as it rolled out its sign-in feature. For now, though, it’s unclear that they’re really listening. Eventually, perhaps, consumers — or the regulators representing them — will.