The problems of technology invariably become apparent only long after the advantages of the technology are taken for granted and considered indispensable. America’s industrial economy was more than a century old before the flaming Cuyahoga River in the 1960s and toxic sludge seeping into basements of homes built over Love Canal in the 1970s motivated passage of environmental laws. Similarly, the digital age was already decades old before data privacy breaches, and particularly the infamous Cambridge Analytica scandal, drove enough to public concern to spur passage of data protection laws in the European Union and California.
Aidan Fitzpatrick, a UK tech entrepreneur who has been building software since the 1990s, has long been concerned about online privacy. Reincubate, the company he founded in 2008, has twice won the Queen’s Award for Enterprise, the highest honor the UK grants to recognize British businesses. His apps have long been associated with Apple’s iOS operating system, particularly data recovery. The most recent app, called Camo, drastically improves the already very good camera on iPhones.
Reincubate explicitly rejects online tracking and data collection as valid revenue generators. We asked him a few questions about the state of online privacy and whether it is too late to undo the relentless data collection that drives the digital economy.
GD: Apple is famously committed to privacy on iPhones, having refused to cooperate with U.S. law enforcement to extract data in numerous criminal investigations, yet your customers rave about your iPhone Backup Extractor. Are you doing something law enforcement hasn’t figured out, or am I missing something here?
AF: Law enforcement would like a back door and Apple would like to prevent any form of privileged access, and we’re firmly supportive of Apple’s approach. We provide elements of a third way with our tools, providing a way for users to access their data in ways they otherwise couldn’t.
Over the years we’ve repeatedly found techniques that are missing in forensics products, but forensics isn’t our target market. We’re building for consenting consumers that want to deeper access to their own data, rather than forensics users who may have an incomplete set of information or consents.
GD: What do you mean by “algorithm anarchy”?
AF: In essence, not going along the the tracking and monitoring that most systems expose you to. Enable users to better understand how they’re tracked, and what is tracked, and building Reincubate around not doing this.
GD: You don’t allow ads on the premium version of your apps, which is the typical way apps generate revenue. What is your alternative?
AF: The old-fashioned, traditional way: we sell a paid version of our apps, and have steered clear of subsidizing anything with ads. There’s a free version of our product, which is precisely that: no tracking, no ads. We hope that it will suit the needs of most users, that they’ll love it, and that a proportion of them will choose to pay in order to access more advanced features.
One big benefit for this approach is that we can really focus our time on building higher quality relationships with our customers. They can self-select into escalating that relationship with us by buying our software. This stands in stark contrast to having a smaller interest in all customers who might be clicking on ads. Our incentives are more fairly aligned this way.
GD: How does your data backup download technology protect data privacy?
AF: There are two approaches to this: the philosophical one, that we have a clear idea of our position in terms of how we help and monetize users. They pay, or they get it for free, but either way we’re not interested in their data or what they do.
And then there’s the technological approach that’s enabled by this. Because we are disinterested in user data, we can focus on designing systems that don’t retain or store user data, and that don’t rely on retention.
AF: You’re right — people are accustomed to this, and to a greater extent the ship has sailed. However, there are signs that this is changing. There’s been pushback with legislation in Europe and more recently in California, and the principled position that some vendors (such as Apple or HEY) have taken has attracted more attention recently. Consumers are reeducating themselves as to what this means for them, and increasingly making privacy-conscious choices.