Episode 47b: The Apple Has Turned

A Sad Chapter for Company That I Used to Respect

  
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Well, that was fast…

In my previous episode (#47), I explained the features in Apple’s upcoming iOS 15 which are so controversial and have deeply alarmed security and privacy experts. You can read that episode here.

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Episode #47: The Apple Turns (All Subscriber Version)
Apologies to my readers… Given its importance, this episode was intended to be published for all subscribers, both paid and free. I accidentally published it for paid subscribers only so I am now correcting the error…
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I stressed repeatedly that time would tell on some of these matters and… not even two weeks later, there have been developments. Let’s examine them.

Apple Caves To Pressure… For Now

After Apple debuted its new iOS 15 features - specifically those meant to help combat the spread of child porn - they got pushback. A lot of it. The company went on the defensive and published information on those features, including white papers from tech and security experts who vouched for the new features.

It wasn’t enough.

The company then did something it rarely ever does: they sent a Senior VP to have a 1-on-1 conversation with a reporter from The Wall Street Journal. The conversation was an honest look at the company’s new features and the confusion and alarm they were causing. The conversation was meant to help calm security experts and the public.

That, too, wasn’t enough.

As a result, On September 3rd, 2021, Apple decided to delay the release of all three of its newest and most controversial features. The company says the features will be released “later this year”.

We’ll see about that. Although Apple has always prided itself on being a privacy-first company — especially when compared to Google and Microsoft — these features aren’t popular, aren’t well understood, and they deeply concern security professionals who’ve taken the time to dig into the details.

That’s important to remember because the public drives Apple’s profits. Therefore, Apple has historically taken the public’s opinions seriously on any matter that might deeply damage its profits. This, of course, is one of the advantages of the free market: people vote with their money.

Apple knows this.

Therefore, this delay seems smart to me. However, if the company cannot do more to reassure the public, they’ll be forced to consider one of two options:

  1. Permanently cancel their new features to claim they’re still on the side of privacy and security advocates.

  2. Re-engineer their new features to better serve the public’s current and future privacy and security needs.

Until then, the public remains understandably skeptical. I am as well. My greatest fear is that malicious governments will try to force Apple to change its software to target its own citizens. They’ll do this with the threat of banning Apple and its products from its borders, forcing the company to choose between profits and human rights.

For their part, Apple has told the public not to worry because they “would refuse such demands”. Sadly, we now know that this is a blatant lie.

A Shocking & Ugly Development

We now know that the New York Times, in a rather shocking exposé from May of 2021, revealed that Apple has repeatedly made rather substantial concessions to China in regards to human rights. Apple has bowed to China in regards to:

  • User data encryption - China, not Apple, now controls it

  • The Chinese App Store - Apple proactively removes apps it thinks might anger the Chinese Communist Party

  • Blocking tools used by pro-democracy advocates for organizing, avoiding firewalls, or mentioning the Dalai Lama.

In Episode #47, I was clear that I found this corporate behavior disgusting and unacceptable… but that I understood it, given the financial implications. Do I condone blocking access to privacy? No. Do I condone that certain topics be off-limits for people to discuss or learn? No. But I do understand that when your company so fully depends on the workers of one nation, that your hands might be tied. And, according to the New York Times article - “Apple now assembles nearly all of its products and earns a fifth of its revenue in the China region.”

Now, I’d like to believe that Apple would find another nation - one with a solid track record on human rights - to help assemble its goods. But that’s not going to happen. Apple, like thousands of other corporations, keeps its profits high by using cheap labor from China to make its goods.

In my previous episode, I argued that I’d need to see that Apple was willing to violate those same principles in another country before I’d call it a pattern. I mentioned Russia as a possible test case: the country recently demanded that Apple and Google remove an app from their app stores which was created by political opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The purpose of the app: to help Russians vote out corruption, including Vladimir Putin.

At the time I wrote that episode, Apple and Google both had not caved to Russia’s request.

Unfortunately, on September 17th, 2021, they did. The app was removed from both Apple’s and Google’s app stores. Worse, according to Newsweek, Apple went a step further and removed software to block a user’s IP address, thus preventing anonymity online and, therefore, privacy and security to communicate one’s political beliefs.

There’s just no other way to say it: this concession by Apple to the Russian government is deeply shameful.

The company’s behavior now makes clear that there is a clear pattern when profits are on the line: that Apple is willing to forgo human freedoms, privacy, and security, even when it knows that the nation forcing changes to its services is a known violator of human rights.

This is an incredibly sad day for me. A company that I’ve loved and respected for decades has shocked and disappointed me. As a result, I am now forced to research other platforms so that I can safely and confidently recommend those to my readers.

Stay tuned until then.

Wow.


And that’s a wrap for today’s episode, everyone. Thanks again to my subscribers for subscribing and supporting independent technology journalism. As a reminder, please use the link below to share Tech Talk with friends, family, and colleagues. It’s a quick way that you can help me spread the word about this newsletter.

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