Friday, April 22, 2011

Meet the New Big Brother, Same As the Old Big Brother

Remember this ad?

Apple has always positioned itself as the hip, right-brain alternative to the boring-ass monoculture of Microsoft, and when it looked as if it might go down for the third time way back when, it was the artists and creative class that saved it. Now it seems to be setting itself up to become not just Nerd Wrangler Extraordinaire, but the repository of all info on every hapless soul who evinces an interest in an iPod Shuffle. Just try to buy one and use it. i-Tunes is the proprietary link to transfer music into it, and to use iTunes requires a commitment of self-disclosure on the level of marriage: not just name, address and e-mail, but phone number, age, gender, and credit card, not to mention at least 3 sign-offs on Apple legal agreements, one of which is 17 pages long.

Since the iPhone took off, we've seen increasingly draconian limits for both users and developers placed on the apps Apple will allow, which also affect iPod and iPad, and some of which seem to be driven more by the Morality Police of Steve Jobs' mind than profit motive.

On top of these issues is the black heart at the center of Apple's supply chain overseas: environmental poisoning, and mistreatment and enslavement of the workers who build our little toys at Foxxconn and elsewhere.

So I recalled the advert above when the latest concerns over Apple's secret tracking of its iPhone owners' whereabouts hit the front pages this week:
The privacy startle, apparently enabled by this summer's iOS 4 release, was discovered by two security researchers, one of whom claims he was an Apple employee for five years. They're equally puzzled and disturbed by the location collection: "By passively logging your location without your permission, Apple have made it possible for anyone from a jealous spouse to a private investigator to get a detailed picture of your movements," they explain. All it would take to crack the information out of your iOS device is an easy jailbreak. On your computer, the information can be opened as easily as JPEG using the mapping software that the security experts have made for download—Try it yourself.

The data itself is jarringly accurate (most of the time). And even though it appears to rely on tower triangulation rather than GPS pinpointing (meaning you're probably not safe with location services switched off), the map I was able to generate with mapping software the security duo released visualizes my life since the day I bought my iPhone 4 in July. Everywhere I've been. Bus trips home. Train trips to visit family. Vacations. Places I'd forgotten I'd even gone. Zoom in on that giant blotch over New York, and you can see my travels, block by block. My entire personal and professional life—documented by a phone I didn't know was also a full time location logging device. It's all accessible—where I've been, and when.
This was foretold last year when Apple unleashed its new "privacy" policy:
The new terms, to which Apple users must agree before they are able to download any additional apps or media, allow Apple to collect "precise location data," as well as the "real-time geographic location" of your device, and share it with Apple's "partners and licensees." Apple notes that its location-based services, specifically MobileMe, require this location information in order to work, but is otherwise vague on how the data will be used.
The most interesting part is that it can't really be switched off without wiping memory, and it goes with you as you change and upgrade your devices. And for the conspiracy fan, there's this:
Security expert Kevin Mitnick says he's "Quite shocked and disturbed" by the revelation, noting that the logged data could be of great interest to a variety of entities—prying spouses, private investigators, and, he reckons, the government. He speculates that the existence of the log itself "could have been at the request of the government," as such data "can't be used for advertisements. It seems to me more to be a governmental request." He added, "I like to know what my device is doing." And, that the phone's logging of data was in this case like "carrying around a bug and a tracker at the same time."
The easiest way to control people is to seduce them into loving you first. Apple's doing a fine job of both.