Facebook (and Zoom) and capitulating privacy in the age of isolation

According to Motherboard, Facebook approached the NSO Group to try and buy a tool that would let them better spy on a specific subset of their users. Because of course they did.

This all from court documents revealed as part of Facebook’s ongoing lawsuit against NSO for helping governments hack WhatsApp, which Facebook owns.

Facebook, as everyone knows, is the behemoth social network that’s been accused of a series of reprehensible privacy and decency violations against its users.

The NSO Group is the hugely controversial supplier of spyware like Pegasus and hacking tools to nation-states, among others.

The subset of users Facebook reportedly wanted to target was us, iPhone users.

Now, Facebook apparently didn’t actually want Pegasus proper, which is used to remotely infect and spy on phones. They wanted Pegasus technology to make their own, existing Facebook spyware better.

See, in a previous scandal — it’s legit hard to keep up — Facebook was accused of pushing a VPN app named Onavo Protect on their users without properly disclosing that Facebook owned it and was using it to harvest our behavioral data to monetize, and to target competition.

You know that old cliche that big internet companies don’t sell our data because it’s too valuable? Yeah, Cambridge Analytica proved they do indeed sell our data because metastasizing is even more valuable.

Now, Facebook was eventually forced to pull the VPN from the App Store and Google Play Store, and sunset it.

But, like any vampire, it’s blood sucking continued. Techcrunch reported that Facebook had rebranded Onavo Protect as Research, used its massive advertising engine to target desirable demographics, including teen agers, offered them $20 for participating, and then abused Apple’s enterprise distribution system to infect their iPhones with it.

And yeah, that’s how valuable our data is to them. Block them from offering free services to get it and they’ll become desperate enough to pay for it. Topic for a future video.

But, according to Motherboard’s report, even after all that, Facebook still couldn’t harvest as much data from iPhone users as they could from Android users, and so wanted the Pegasus parts to make sure we were all being equally violated.

Now, Facebook says NSO is misrepresenting all this to try and distract from the lawsuit. But, Facebook doesn’t refute the claim in any other way. No denial, no context, no explanation.

And here’s a little secret decoder ring for corporate PR: If a company is in the right, they’ll usually hold their ground and say so in simple, plain language. If they’re on shaky ground, they’ll try to angle and change the point of discussion. If they done wrong, they’ll flail about in a desperate attempt to distract from the topic.

NSO Group just said they only sell to government agencies and law enforcement, so they talk-to-the-handed Facebook and wouldn’t comment further.

In terms of reactions so far, there haven’t been many. At least not that I can find. It’s up on TechMeme but, Apple site’s aside, almost none of the major tech sites have covered it, and I haven’t seen it talked about in my Twitter feed either.

The big exception is John Gruber from Daring Fireball, who repeated what he’s said before:

Facebook is a criminal enterprise.

Ryan Mac from Buzzfeed tweeted a reminder to whatever the NSO says with 10 lbs of salt, but that it was an incredible accusation in a formal court filing.

A New York Times reported tweeted that it was very disturbing if true, but that tweet seems to have been deleted.

So, it’s possible that reporters just don’t think there’s any there here, that commenters see it as two controversial companies just going at it, or that people are just busy with other stuff during all this shelter-in-place.

It’s the latter possibility that concerns me, though.

We’ve seen with Zoom, which has become massively popular thanks to social distancing, that people have been willing to put longer range concerns about privacy and security on hold for the immediate convenience of social connection.

Zoom has a history of, at best, playing fast and loose with security and privacy, and at worst having a reckless, borderline malicious disregard for it. Everything from secretly installing servers on the Mac to secretly channeling data to Facebook to secretly routing data through China, to failing to provide basic safeguards for users.

It’s a chilling mess that I would never use or recommend using during normal times, but that the people I care about and want to stay connected with are using right now.

Facebook is the same. I deleted almost all my data and stopped logging into the blue app following Cambridge Analytica, but now I’m worried about family and friends for whom Facebook is effectively the Internet. And, of course, I never stopped using Instagram, because Insta.

Walt Mossberg, who pretty much invented personal technology journalism, expressed just exactly that a couple weeks ago.

The deal with the devil that I’ve made for myself is that I won’t actively use Zoom or Facebook but if the people I care about reach out to connect through them, I’ll respond.

But I'm terrified that if I sacrifice privacy and security in the name of convenience and connection, I'll end up with none of it.


Forget iPhone SE vs. iPhone 9 — How will Apple launch it?

Last Thursday, Zac Hall from 9to5Mac reported that the long-rumored and widely anticipated next-generation entry-level iPhone would be called the iPhone SE, would come in red, white, and black, with up to 256 GB of storage, and most importantly, the launch was imminent, as soon as last Friday.

Obviously, the Friday part didn’t pan out, which is the problem with these kinds of timelines. If someone tells you something is imminent, it could mean anything from the very next moment to… well, who knows when?

Right after that, people started searching and found a few things already branded with the iPhone SE name, and not from the 2016 original.

Now, I can’t imagine how hard it’s been for everyone on all the teams at Apple trying to coordinate product launches while sheltered at home, that are suddenly all online, and with schedules that shift weeks every week, but maybe it goes go to show you why that store often gets taken down for big releases.

Anyway, Jon Prosser of Front Page Tech, who is absolutely not Bryce Walker, previously reported that the iPhone 9 would tentatively be announced on or around April 15 and ship on April 22.

His use of the iPhone 9 name there was just a placeholder.

As I’ve said before, the iPhone SE or iPhone 9 makes a ton of sense to me. It serves multiple markets, just like the original: For people who want top of the line cameras and performance but either still prefer a Home button and Touch ID, just don’t want to pay more than $400, or both. It also continues Apple’s efforts to increase entry level value as the high end costs may continue to rise. More on that in a future show.

And yeah, it’s interesting that one of these reports has a name but no firm date, and the other a date but no firm name.

See, my understanding of how Apple handles names is that there’s like a hero name that goes on top of the list. Then, a long list of alternatives. And those are just scrutinized for everything from sentiment to what they sound like or translate into in other languages, and a dozen other things. Often, but not always, the hero name wins. Just not MacBook Stealth. Thankfully.

But, unlike hardware and software, where a lot of people have access to specs and builds even early on, the name is just a marketing thing until collateral, packaging, and advertising has to go into production, which is much later in the cycle.

There was also some talk of Apple arranging the release to counter-program the OnePlus 8 announcement scheduled for April 14th.

Now, anything’s technical possible, but my take is:

  1. It would be unusual for Apple to want to share a news cycle. Why compete for coverage when they could go the next day and just subsume it? I mean, the Apple people will cover the iPhone and the Android people will cover OnePlus, but why split attention with the general tech people if you can just get your coverage out on top?

  2. I just don’t see Apple caring that much about OnePlus. Maybe Samsung or Google, but even then, Apple’ strikes me as that rich cousin that just picks the perfect date for them to show up and take your guest room, not even thinking about any other cousin who might already be there or already scheduled to show up. Focus is just the equal and opposite of tunnel vision.

So, I think the 15th would be smarter just from the perspective of maximum launch effort. But we’ll see.

Now, I’m not going to get into the how’s and why’s of leaks at this point, but if you’re curious about that whole process, let me know in the comments and I’ll cover it in a future show.

But, 9to5Mac has historically had excellent sources for their Apple reporting, part of which went to Bloomberg with Mark Gurman, but much of which remains with their reputation and current slate of reporters.

Meanwhile, Jon Prosser has been on absolute fire lately with sourcing that’s turned out to be accurate on a growing number of stories.

And, since most of us are stuck at home right now, there’s nothing like a little, hot blogger on YouTuber drama action to keep us all distracted and all up in the popcorn emoji.

But, personally, I’m actually less interested in when the iPhone SE slash 9 is launching and more interested in how Apple plans to handle the launch.

Prior to shelter-at-home, my prediction was a repeat of the 2016 March event with the new iPhone SE story being told much in the same way as the previous iPhone SE story, just with familiar form-factor swapped in for preferred size.

Now, with shelter-in-place, we’ve seen how Apple handled the MacBook Air and iPad Pro updates last month. Those weren’t huge updates that really needed new features demonstrated live on stage. I mean, LiDAR would have made for a great demo, but we’ve already had pretty much everything else shown off back in October of 2018.

The new iPhone SE strikes me as very much the same. Sure, an Apple events brings with it a ton of attention that translates directly into marketing for whatever new products are shown off.

But, given how much so many of us are just looking for things to talk about right now, it’ll set social media on fire no matter what.

So, Apple Newsroom release with some Apple YouTube videos and media follow up just makes the same kind of sense that does.

As to how Apple plans to sell the iPhone SE, absent Apple Stores and during what for many is a huge financial crunch period, well, that’s even trickier.

Apple could just drop the new iPhone SE same way they did the new iPad Pro, and let people who really want or need it place their orders and take their deliveries.

There might be some push-back on Apple releasing products right now in general, but:

  1. They already did with the iPad Pro and MacBook Air, and…
  2. Huawei just did with the P40 and the aforementioned OnePlus is about to with the 8.

Apple is subject to way more scrutiny than pretty much any other company in the tech space, so I expect pushback regardless, and whether or not they release new products because they’re releasing new products or not, but we’ll see.

My guess is that Apple is applying the Nick Fury principle here: "Until such time as the world ends, we will act as though it intends to spin on."

Just as the iPad Pro was justified as a high-end niche product that only be who could afford it, would afford it, the iPhone SE will be justified as a low-cost product for those who need it most in a time when they may need it most.


iPhone 11 Review: 6 months later

The iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro were really well reviewed when they first came out, especially the cameras, battery life, and the lower price on the base model 11.

There were also some criticisms though. Namely, the lack of faster charging options and accessories, USB-C, and just how buggy iOS 13 was at launch.

But, times change. Hardware gets worn. Software gets updated. New competition comes out. Expectations change. And so do circumstances, especially right now when many of us are rightfully stuck at home and depending on our phones in very different ways than we’d planned to. It makes the whole question of what to buy and when to buy it just alternate reality different than it was at launch.

So, I’m going to deep dive into all of that, right now. Video version available now you can find the text version up as my first, new Monday column over at iMore.


Amazon Prime now selling and renting directly on iPhone or iPad — but how?

Nick Statt, writing for The Verge

Amazon’s Prime Video iOS and Apple TV apps now let customers make in-app purchases, including renting and buying films and TV shows. The change marks a huge shift in Amazon’s approach to the App Store, which mandates a 30 percent cut on all in-app purchases. Prior to the change, Amazon would not allow you to rent or buy content on the Prime Video app, instead, directing users to a web browser to avoid the App Store fee.

Now, when users log in to the Prime Video app, there should be a message reading, “Browse, rent, or buy new release movies, popular TV shows, and more — now within the app.” (Big thanks to George Watson, who tipped us off to this change.)

Apple originally didn't allow in-app-purchases in the App Store. Free apps had to stay free. When they changed that policy, they created a new one that didn't allow linking out from the App Store to another transaction service. For digital goods, at least. It never covered physical goods.

In other words, Apple didn't want every app in the App Store to suddenly go free and link back directly to the developer for payments as a way to do an end run around the 30/70 revenue split. To stick Apple with the hosting but deny them the transaction.

Thanks to giant games like Candy Crush and Pokemon Go, and on-again-off-again relationships with streaming video providers like Netflix, that's allowed App Store revenue to explode of the last decade. Since App Store revenue is a huge part of services revenue, and Apple has told investors to expect a huge increase in services revenue, it's something Apple probably wants to protect.

But, it's also an old, outdated system that results in impossible margins for middle vendors or extreme inconvenience for customers.

Basically, if Amazon wants 30% from content creators to aggregate videos for Prime, and Apple wants 30% from Amazon to aggregate Prime for the App Store, and the content creator still wants 70%, it breaks the math.

A few years back Apple dropped the second year subscription revenue share down to 15%, but that still makes multiple middle vendors tough. Neither Amazon nor Apple can earn together what they would earn separately, selling directly.

So, did Apple drop the rate for individual purchases (full out or rental), did Amazon agree to cut Apple in (full share or partial), and if they came to a deal, is it a new deal for everyone or something special for Amazon and maybe just other major vendors?


It seems clear, if and when we emerge from COVID-19 and regulatory attention turns back to tech companies, App Store policies will be front and center.

That's why it would behoove Apple to come up with something more modern, something that lets them defray the cost of hosting the App Store and serving free apps, but also drives revenue based on security, privacy, and convenience, rather than policy, and that allows all these apps to provide better and more convenient experiences for all their mutual customers.

Maybe this updated Amazon implemenation could be a first step towards that?


CNET: Armed with the iPhone 8, canvassers go all-in with tech

Lynn La, writing for CNET

In an effort to make the door-to-door process, which is the most laborious and expensive part of the census, faster and more efficient, the bureau is arming 500,000 enumerators with the Apple iPhone 8. But as the census goes mobile, instantaneously beaming respondents' answers to data centers and cloud servers, it opens itself up to those who may want to access or manipulate such valuable information. The stakes to pull off a census have always been high, but with this year's adoption of new technological methods, the pressure to succeed is even higher.

Simple and familiar to use, easy to carry, always connected — sounds like the right tool for the job.

"We are proud that the US Census Bureau will use the iPhone for the collection and management of 2020 census data," said an Apple spokesperson. "The census is an important constitutional cornerstone that aims to ensure every one of us has equal representation, education and access in America."

Now they just have to find out how well the government software works, both in terms of reliability and security.


Hello (Again)

As of this week, I've left iMore/Vector, and their parent company, Future PLC, and started my own, independent YouTube channel. But hear me out!

I’m fascinated by Apple. I’ve been covering the company since the launch of the original iPhone, and they’ve come to touch just so many aspects of our culture, our relationships, our lives. They’ve become the lens through which many of us experience the rest of consumer tech as well, from Google to Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Twitter, and more.

I also love the news. I have a Sorkin-esque romantic ideal about how facts righteously presented can inform and empower us.

I spent the first 10 years of my career in product marketing, learning how tech companies position their products and problems from the inside. I spent the last 10 in tech media, learning how those products and problems affect all of us.

Now I want to spend the next 10 years right here with you. Talking not just about Apple, glorified or vilified, but about all the tech that affects all of our lives. And not just about the news, about what’s happening and when, but diving deep into the analysis behind it, the how and the why.

Most importantly, I want to start a new conversation with you about what’s real and what’s not, what’s fact and what’s not, what’s serious and meant to help and educate us and what’s just sensationalism, desperate to manipulate and exploit us.

And, as a community, I think we’ll be able to figure it all out… together. 

It starts here with this brand new channel and a brand new… mostly daily analysis show, because that’s just what I do. But I have a few other, really exciting projects coming up that I can’t wait to tell you about as well.

And here’s where you come in. I’m starting fresh. Starting over. Building everything all back up from the ground up from the ground up. And I need your help to do it. So, go subscribe my new YouTube channel, set that bell gizmo to always, it’s the only way YouTube will actually tell you when each and every new episode goes live, share this new channel with everyone you know so we can get this all going again fast.

Thanks for your support. Let's do this.