In October, Apple CEO Tim Cook gave a speech regarding the need to fight back against the “data industrial complex” and create new federal regulations in the United States for protecting consumers’ digital privacy. During this speech, Cook sounded like one of those paranoid bitcoin people.
Apple’s push for enhanced user privacy over the past few years is quite different from how Google has profited from their Android acquisition over the years, which has some wondering which type of phone would be better for privacy-conscious bitcoin users. While Google is trying to collect as much information about their users as possible, Apple is putting users themselves in control of their own data.
So does Apple’s stance on privacy make them the better option for bitcoin users, who usually want more control over their data and don’t want internet companies tracking their every move? It may not be that simple. Let’s take a closer look.
Apple’s Privacy Push
Not too long ago, bitcoin users were purposefully destroying their iPhones in reaction to the removal of the Blockchain wallet from the App Store. Fast forward to today, and iPhone users are able to use a variety of digital assets on the platform.
Despite the early hesitation to accept bitcoin apps, one of the first major mobile bitcoin wallets, Breadwallet (now BRD), was initially developed for iOS. When asked for their reasoning for starting with iOS, BRD CEO Aaron Voisine told Coindesk in 2014 that Apple’s products enabled greater security through the use of the Secure Element, which is a separate, specialized chip in the iPhone where cryptographic keys can be stored.
This added security is also now available on Android devices, but it’s worth noting the first mobile bitcoin wallet that used a secure enclave was on iOS.
In his recent talk at a privacy conference in Brussels, Cook noted that users are the ones who should be in complete control of their data. Due to this philosophy, Apple tends to store more data on a user’s own device rather than the cloud. This should sound familiar to anyone interested in bitcoin because complete control over one’s money is sort of the whole point of creating digital assets.
Of course, Apple is notoriously proprietary. This is a direct contradiction with the open-source, permissionless nature of Bitcoin. When the point of Bitcoin is to remove as much trust from finance as possible, it’s quite a contradiction to run Bitcoin software on hardware and software that is far from transparent. In short, users are unable to verify Apple is doing what they say they’re doing when it comes to privacy.
Android, But Without the Google
While Apple is focused on selling hardware, Google is focused on learning as much information about everyone as possible (see creepy Eric Schmidt quotes). They’re in the business of selling ads, and highly-targeted ads are more efficient for advertisers and publishers. As the old saying goes, Google users are the product rather than the customer in many instances.
If the debate were simply between an Apple iPhone and an Android phone from Google, it may make sense to go with Apple — even if just from a philosophical point of view. After all, at least Apple is saying they’re respecting your privacy.
Having said that, Android phones can also be altered to remove Google apps and services from the operating system. Even Silent Circle’s much-hyped Blackphone used an operating system based on Android.
However, putting a new operating system on a smartphone is not a task that everyone is able to handle. Additionally, privacy-focused, Android-based smartphone companies, such as Silent Circle and CopperheadOS, have run into serious issues.
Android is generally preferred over iOS by privacy-minded individuals due to the Google-owned operating system’s open-source nature; however, the tangible advantages become unclear when it’s somewhat difficult for the average person to remove Google from their phone and switching over to something like the free and open source LineageOS.
Additionally, installing a custom ROM on an Android device may end up providing the user with worse privacy and security if they don’t understand what they’re doing. There’s also the issue of proprietary baseband firmware existing in all of these Android phones, which could include backdoors that allow remote access to the phone’s data. This is not a theoretical concern, as such a backdoor was previously found in Samsung Galaxy devices.
As a side note, someone who does decide to go with an Android-powered device should make sure that the phone comes with a secure enclave that will drastically enhance the security of any bitcoin private keys stored on the phone.
At the end of the day, neither Apple nor Android-powered smartphones are anywhere near perfect devices for bitcoin users. For now, privacy-conscious smartphone users may want to look into Purism’s Librem 5 as the best option going forward (see our post on why bitcoin users should use Purism devices).