Apple's data auction privacy ad is only scary because it's true

Apple's new privacy ad
(Image credit: Apple)

If you want a funny commercial that is subtly terrifying, look no further than the new Apple privacy ad. You may chuckle before covering your mouth in abject horror.

Ellie is like all of us; just a person perusing the latest offerings in a classic vinyl music store, who then discovers a door and a hidden auction where a multitude of what could best be described as dandies are anxiously bidding on her private data.

Yup, seems normal. Apple is using this slightly comic, but mostly disturbingly accurate, ad depiction of data brokers at an auction house called "DUBIOUS" to illustrate a point: this is what's happening to your data.

In the commercial, which is titled "Your Data is Being Sold!" and is released online and broadcast on Wednesday, Ellie is clearly shocked and appalled as everything from her late-night texts to her grandmother ("Sweet Nana,") is auctioned away to data brokers. Because this is an ad for Apple, though, Ellie launches a secret weapon.

She takes out her iPhone 13 and clicks "Ask not to track" for an app and the anthropomorphized data and data brokers start to disappear. Ellie also adjusts the Safari Privacy settings and soon the dubious auction house is empty.

It's an effective, if a little on-the-nose, ad. But it's not inaccurate. 

Any given website has dozens of trackers (usually hidden under transparent pixels) that allow data you dropped on one site to be carried over to another (it's why once you search for red shoes on one site, you see "red shoes" on every site).

Similarly, app developers have (and often still do) sell your tracking data to third-party data brokers. Apple's app privacy program now forces app developers to ask you for permission to track your data. So many people have opted out using these new settings, that it's often cited in less-than-stellar earnings reports for companies like Facebook.

Apple said that the goal of the hyperbolic ad is to highlight potential uses of data, ones you're probably not aware of.

The company's commitment to privacy is not only evident in this ad and Apple's various privacy-related and anti-tracking features, but in what its leadership says about the topic.

Speaking before the International Association of Privacy Professionals earlier this year, Apple CEO Tim Cook said, “A world without privacy is less imaginative, less empathetic, less innovative, less human” and noted that Apple has "a commitment to protecting people from a data-industrial complex built on a foundation of surveillance.”

In the case of this ad, though, that "data industrial complex" is a cliched auction house with real people bidding on physical objects that represent Ellie's data. Still, we get the point.

Apple, which has never made its revenues from ads or customer data, is in the enviable position of approaching the data privacy issue from higher ground. It can point out Google or Facebook's data practices (though rarely, if ever, by name) because it has no need for that data.

Even Apple's fast-growing services business relies on direct subscription payments, which means, it doesn't need your data for revenue or growth.

Anyway, enjoy this slightly comical ad.

Also, if you're interested in how to manage these settings, you can read our app transparency guide and iPhone location services control guide.

Lance Ulanoff
US Editor in Chief

A 35-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.

Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, Fox News, Fox Business, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.