Pluralistic: 14 Nov 2022 Even if you're paying for the product, you're still the product

Today's links

An Apple 'Privacy. That's iPhone.' ad. The three rear-facing camera lenses have been replaced by the staring, red eye of HAL9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Even if you're paying for the product, you're still the product (permalink)

There's something oddly comforting about the idea that "if you're not paying for the product, you're the product," namely, the corollary: "If you can afford to pay for a product, you won't be the product." But it's bullshit. Companies don't make you the product because you don't pay – they make you the product because you can't stop them.

The theory behind "if you're not paying for the product…" is that old economist's saw: "incentives matter." Companies that monetize attention are incentivized to manipulate and spy on you, while companies that you pay just want to make you happy.

This is a theory of corporate behavior grounded in economics, not power, a creature of theory and doctrine that never bothers to check in with the real world to see how that theory and doctrine map to actual events. Reality is a lot uglier.

Apple has blanketed the planet with billboards and print and online ads extolling its privacy-forward system design (e.g. "Privacy. That's Iphone."). There's something to this: in 2020, the company made it very easy to opt out of third-party Ios surveillance, and 96% of its users opted out:

That decision cost Facebook $10 billion in a single year, and the losses keep coming. Facebook launched a campaign that accused Apple of privacywashing an anticompetitive maneuver, claiming that Apple didn't care about its users' privacy, they just wanted to eliminate competition for Apple's own ad brokerage:

Facebook's campaign poses itself as the true champion of its users, accusing Apple of shamming. It's laughable. Facebook manifestly despises its users and proves that fact every day in a thousand ways, large and small. Facebook's true objection to Apple's privacy tools is that they reduced Facebook's earnings by $10b. Obviously.

But that doesn't mean that Facebook is wrong about Apple's cynicism. Apple exercises enormous control over its users. It's a direct control. Apple blocks you from installing software of your choosing or from using third-party repair services of your choosing. They pour millions into engineering to make this technically challenging, and lead a coalition of large corporations that kill right to repair legislation whenever it is mooted:

Some of Facebook's critics accuse it of exercising similar control, but via a far more insidious method: they say that Facebook's voracious surveillance of its users, combined with machine learning, allows Facebook to control its users' minds, stripping them of their free will and turning them into algorithm-addled zombies who do whatever Facebook directs them to do.

This is an extraordinary claim, given that every previous claim of mind-control turned out to be bullshit, from Mesmer to MK Ultra. The best evidence for these mind-control claims comes from Facebook's own marketing materials, where the company assures advertisers that they should spend their money on FB's platform because of its mind-control features.

When FB critics repeat these claims, they're engaged in "criti-hype," Lee Vinsel's useful coinage describing criticism that serves to bolster the target's own propaganda. If FB are evil geniuses, well, at least they're still geniuses.

Some Facebookers doubtless believe their own hype, but that doesn't mean we have to join them in self-delusion. We can criticize Facebook for seeking control over its users, and for using that control to do things that serve its own interests at the expense of its users' interests.

That's the true sin of Big Tech: using deception and coercion to control users. Companies that gain this control can be reliably expected to use it in whichever ways they can get away with. They are paperclip-maximizing artificial life-forms bent on devouring the human race, not ethical actors.

Apple's commitment to privacy is best understood as instrumental. Apple thinks that protecting your privacy will attract your business, and they're right. I would like to have privacy! But while Apple can increase its revenues by telling you they'll protect your privacy, they can increase them even more by lying about it.

That's just what they do. Earlier this month, a small security research firm called Mysk released a video revealing that when you tick the box on your Iphone that promises "disable the sharing of Device Analytics altogether," your Iphone continues to spy on you, and sends the data it collects to Apple:

The data Iphones gather is extraordinarily fine-grained: "what you tapped on, which apps you search for, what ads you saw, and how long you looked at a given app and how you found it."

It doesn't stop there: "The app sent details about you and your device as well, including ID numbers, what kind of phone you’re using, your screen resolution, your keyboard languages, how you’re connected to the internet—notably, the kind of information commonly used for device fingerprinting."

The researchers had to jailbreak an Iphone in order to find this lie. Apple has gone to extraordinary lengths to make jailbreaking illegal. Apple claims that allowing users to disable the locks on their phones will make them vulnerable to bad actors who will install deceptive, coercive software.

That is true, but it's also true that these locks make it impossible to determine whether Apple's software is deceptive and coercive. The walled fortress that keeps you safe from third parties is also a walled prison that leaves you at the mercy of the warlord who owns the fortress.

Once a company attains a certain scale, it becomes too big to jail, and then it monetizes you however it can. If you think the future of technology is a battle is between Google's approach and Apple's, think again. The real fight is between the freedom to decide how technology works for you, and corporate control over technology.

Apple and Google are like the pigs and the men at the end of Animal Farm: supposed bitter enemies who turn out to be indistinguishable from one another. Google also has "privacy" switches in its preference panels that do nothing:

Indeed, there are so many places in Google's location privacy settings where you can tick a box that claims to turn off location spying. None of them work. A senior product manager at Google complained to her colleagues that she had turned off three different settings and was still being tracked:

Apple is now the subject of a California class action suit over its deceptive practices, which violate the California Invasion of Privacy Act.

As Gizmodo's Thomas Germain notes, Apple has a good – if self-serving – reason to spy on its users. It has launched its own ad network, and is selling advertisers the ability to target its customers based on their activities:

Companies will only protect your privacy to the extent that it is more profitable than not doing so. They can increase those profits by advertising privacy promises to potential customers. They can increase them more by secretly breaking those promises, And they can increase them even more by using privacy claims to block their rivals' spying, so they're the sole supplier of your nonconsensually collected personal information.

That's what's happening with Google's endless proposals to "increase privacy" in Chrome that block third parties from spying on users, while letting Google continue to invade our privacy:

If we want our privacy, we need both transparency (so third parties can investigate companies' claims to protect privacy) and regulation (so cheating companies will face consequences when they're caught by those third parties).

That's why it's so exciting that the FTC has announced its intention to treat privacy invasions as antitrust violations:

For so long as corporations can use technology and law to hide their misdeeds and power to avoid consequences for those misdeeds, "voting with your wallet" is as useless as opting out of Ios tracking.

We had advertising-supported media for generations – centuries – without mass surveillance. The problem with advertising isn't incentives – it's impunity.

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY 3.0, modified)

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago HG Wells, ripoff artist

#15yrsago Kremlin uses software piracy laws to shut down dissident media outlets

#15yrsago 1.8 million pages of US federal case law to go online for free

#15yrsago Japanese “melody roads” play tunes as you drive over them

#15yrsago Rewired: Post-Cyberpunk Anthology shows how sf has changed since the Mirroshades era

#15yrsago I Want Sandy – perfect productivity email bot is free and public

#10yrago Gerrymandering in North Carolina: win <50% of the popular vote, take 70% of the seats

#10yrsago Campaign to opt out of pornoscanners & video TSA checkpoints at Thanksgiving

#10yrsago World’s oldest hacker radio show under threat

#5yrsago Step-by-step guide to locking down your Facebook account

#5yrsago What it takes to actually stop a determined, vengeful cyberstalker

#5yrsago Verizon is finally killing Compuserve Forums

#5yrsago Congressional Republican candor: everyone hates our tax plan except the CEOs we depend on for campaign millions

#1yrago Vizio makes more money spying on people who buy TVs than it does on TVs themselves

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Slashdot (

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