The Federal Government Must Have Serious Apple Envy

Consumers Gladly Hand Over Their Data to Tech Companies in Exchange for Convenience and Safety

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Apple's got us all covered.
Apple's got us all covered. Credit: Illustration by Kelsey Dake

Nothing pains me quite as much as having to admit I might have been wrong about something. But news breaking last week may force me to reconsider my opinion of Dave Eggers' 2013 novel "The Circle."

I don't think the book has gotten any better. The main character is still annoying and, worse, a dimwit. The dialogue is still as flaccid as the plot is obvious. Spoiler alert for anyone who has never heard of Facebook or Mark Zuckerberg, but the mysterious stranger running around the campus in a hoodie is the company's founder!

That said, Eggers did paint a portrait of a massive tech company infiltrating itself so far into all of our lives that citizens become consumers in an always-on society. The Circle, the tech company in the novel, is with us 24/7, as well as above us -- and the government. My reappraisal, however, was not initiated by news that Apple was refusing to cooperate with the federal government in its
quest to unlock the iPhone of a terrorist.

Rather, it was the news that Verizon has added a few new features to its Hum product. Hum is a device that turns older autos into connected cars. The newest features will allow people to get real-time monitoring of vehicles' location, speed and activity, a move that Verizon Telematics said is useful for parents of new teenage drivers and adult children with elderly parents who still drive. It will give people "peace of mind," a company spokesman said.

And it was that, rather than the Apple news, that made me think of the Circle. His fictional company is an over-the-top mashup of FacebookGoogleApple that's created a very peculiar world, where consumers have traded a lot for the sake of convenience and quality of life. Not exactly original in the realm of sci-fi, but the microchipping of children—for their safety, of course—really stood out for its sheer brilliance. Says one company exec, "The second a kid's not where he's supposed to be, a massive alert goes off, and the kid can be tracked down immediately."

Sort of like Verizon's Hum geofencing feature allows parents to set alerts so if a teen drives a car past a certain boundary, the parents are notified. Speed alerts can be set as well. It's only a hop, skip and jump to giving parents the option to just shut the car down from afar.

Verizon's not the only player in this space, of course. Hyundai actually topped USA Today's Super Bowl Ad Meter with a spot that featured Kevin Hart tracking his precious daughter via his family car and threatening her date in various hilarious settings.

But no one raises an eyebrow about this because it's for the safety of the children. Consumers, in fact, love this stuff. Creative types do, too. Cannes Lions have been given out for innovative child-tracking apps.

Maybe the government should try this approach. Because getting all bent out of shape over things like a silly cellphone used by a terrorist who killed 14 people doesn't seem to be winning the hearts and minds of anyone other than Donald Trump.

The feds, of course, aren't exactly the most trustworthy bunch. Sure, they say they're out to protect us, but Edward Snowden proved that sometimes they get a little overeager and downright aggressive in snooping out evildoers. It's gotten to the point that even when the government tries to snoop on a proven evildoer—a dead one at that—it comes off as the bad guy in a battle against our gentle corporate overlords.

Farhad Manjoo, speaking for a number of people in techworld, wrote in The New York Times: "In the long run, the tech companies are destined to emerge victorious."

But Manjoo, who often seems to believe we'd all be better off if benevolent tech giants were allowed to run the world, wasn't satisfied with declaring victory. "Even if the FBI wins this case," he wrote, "in the long run, it loses."

Ouch.

That ignores the fact that in the long long run the federal government rarely "loses." It certainly doesn't shrink. And it ignores the history of even the most innocent companies working hand in hand with the government, in particular the Department of Defense. (Google "DARPA and Google.")

I, myself, was initially inclined to side with Apple. As the owner of an iPhone, two MacBooks and an AppleTV, I put a lot of trust in Apple. I'm also a bit of a libertarian. I'm not alone. As of this writing, 73% of the more than 1,000 people responding to an Ad Age poll sided with Apple.

But I found myself last week agreeing with an editorial in the Financial Times.

"Apple and other U.S. technology companies sometimes give the impression that they float above national jurisdictions," the editors wrote. "Apple, and others, need to realize that, however powerful they are, and however popular their products, they do not live in a moral universe of their own creation."

For now, though, Apple and the others do sort of live in a moral universe of their own creation. Because we, the consumers, let them do so in exchange for all they bestow upon us: phones, entertainment, cheap goods quickly shipped and knowledge of where our children are at all times.

They give us peace of mind.

And that's what the government needs to start doing. It should start by making the consumer experience better. Suggestions: Abolish the TSA, make voting available by app and collect taxes via GoFundMe. It should also partner with an ad agency to create some edgy content with internet celebrities. Maybe a music series. Definitely some TedX lectures.

Oh, and it has to come up with a fitness app to track your steps (and maybe your location) and some tracking software for your cars and maybe even shoes and clothes. But just kids' shoes and clothes. (OK, maybe some adult clothes. Just in case Grammy makes a break for it.)

Of course, I'm kidding. We're Americans. We're not going to hand that kind of power to some faceless government bureaucracy, even if it is free.

The faceless technocrats at Apple or Google or Verizon or Uber, though, that's totally different.

Ken Wheaton is the editor of Advertising Age.