Aral Balkan

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Apple is trying to redefine what it means to violate your privacy. We must not let it.

Illustration of white man wearing black t-shirt that has a frowning face iPhone and the words “the screeching voice of the minority.”

Screeching for freedom. Illustration by Jérémie Fontana.

I was there when Steve Jobs unveiled the original iPhone (ironically, I gave a talk on Flash there right after his keynote). I started making apps for iOS from day one, learned Swift while it was still in alpha and updated my code with every new version. My work has been featured by Apple on its App Store and our app, Better Blocker, has maintained glowing reviews and a 4.7 star rating there for years.

If Apple goes ahead with its plans to have your devices violate your trust and work against your interests, I will not write another line of code for their platforms ever again.

Redefining what privacy means

Privacy is the fundamental human right to choose what you share with others and what you keep to yourself.

What Apple is doing with its plans to scan content on your own devices and notify third parties is an attempt to redefine what it means to violate your privacy.

It doesn’t matter where your privacy gets violated (on your own device or in the cloud). It matters that your privacy is being violated. The violation of privacy isn’t in the scanning of the content, it is in the notification of a third-party based on the scan.

Even if a third party isn’t notified, if the insight gleaned from the scan is used in the interests of a third party instead of in your interests and according to your wishes, this is also a violation of your privacy.1

Violation of privacy by proxy is still violation of privacy.

Apple: are we the baddies?

Without privacy we don’t have civil liberties. If we make public the default, then anything we want to keep private has an association of guilt attached.

If you were to ask me who is a bigger threat to our human rights today, Google or Apple with these new plans, it’s Apple, without a doubt.

If you know anything about me or my work in the past decade you will understand exactly what that means.

I’m as shocked as you are.

I do not say this lightly or take any pleasure whatsoever in saying it.

I cannot stress enough how important it is that this line does not get crossed.

Slippery slope? Try cliff edge.

If Apple crosses this line, there’s no going back. It will set a dire precedent and shift the borders of personhood irrevocably.

Google will follow suit.

Soon any system that doesn’t implement on-device scanning/reporting will be deemed illegal (or carry an association of guilt).

It won’t be limited to phones and tablets. Your Mac is next. General computing as we know it could cease to exist.

It won’t be limited to the initial content either. Erdoğan, Putin, Bolsanaro and their brethren will decide the scope.

Just last week Hungary ordered shops to cover up LGBT-themed children’s books. What’s betting Orban adores Apple’s new plans? What happens when Márk receives a racy photo from Mátyás? (Oh, and did I mention, in Hungary they will eventually make Apple set the reporting age on iMessage photos so it applies to all under 18s.)

Mark my words: Apple’s plans to have teenagers’ phones snitch to their parents will result in honour killings in places like Turkey. Women will get murdered because of this. Tim Cook, you will have the blood of queer people on your hands. I truly hope you reconsider starting down this dangerous path.

This is not a slippery slope. It’s a cliff edge.

Beyond sorry

Apple backing down on this won’t be enough.2 To maintain trust, it must make a contractual commitment that the data on your device is yours and yours alone and that Apple’s algorithms can only analyse it as permitted by you and only in your interests.

This is a greater struggle to protect personhood in the digital network age.

Today, we extend ourselves with technology. Not owning and controlling these aspects of ourselves is a violation of our personhood.

Protecting personhood in the digital network age

When I wrote The Universal Declaration of Cyborg Rights, I wanted to get people thinking about the kind of constitutional protections we would need to protect personhood in the digital network age.

I didn’t think we’d need them so soon. I thought we had more time.

But where do you even begin to get legislators to understand and act on such a thing in the here and now?

It’s not like I haven’t tried.

The screeching voices of the minority

Almost 5,000 people – security and privacy experts, cryptographers, researchers, professors, legal experts and Apple customers – have signed an open letter asking Apple to halt deployment of its content monitoring technology immediately and to issue a statement reaffirming their commitment to end-to-end encryption and privacy as a fundamental human right.

Although Apple hasn’t responded to us yet, it did circulate a memo internally calling us “the screeching voices of the minority.”

I urge you to join us.

We have a lot to screech about.

  1. This is what Apple News has been doing for some time). Apple profiles you on your own device and enables advertisers to target you and attempt to manipulate your behaviour and emotional state for profit. Apple says that this does not violate your privacy. It absolutely violates your privacy by any meaningful definition of what privacy is.

    Note that this is also what the Brave browser does. Does Brave violate your privacy? 100%! ↩︎

  2. Whether or not Apple bows down to pressure on this and reverses course, it offers you precious insight into how they think.

    It’s their phone, not yours.

    Tim Apple is your daddy and as long as you live under his roof, you live under his rules. And he’s just made it clear he can enter your room whenever he likes and search your drawers.

    It might be time to think about moving out.

    Problem is, where do you go? Do you move in with creepy uncle Google next door? You’re screwed either way.

    Oh and remember that your banking app only works on iOS and Android…

    I’m seeing people say “just don’t use an iPhone.” It’s not that simple when everyday things like financial apps with two-factor authentication are locked into the two main platforms.

    We need legislation to ensure critical services use open standards so you can use your PinePhone to buy lunch in the future.

    It’s shocking how easily some folks jump to the technological equivalent of “just go live in a cave” as the solution. No, that’s not an acceptable alternative. We deserve to partake in modern life without sacrificing our human rights.

    It’s victim blaming to tell everyday people they’re at fault for using one of the two main tech platforms instead of an (as of yet inaccessible) alternative. I have two PinePhones and my room overflows with open hardware. No, I don’t blame you for using an iPhone or an Android device. You’re the victim here.

    Blame the actual culprits: clueless legislators/policymakers who allow these monopolies to continue and fail to protect our human rights. Blame Big Tech and those who enable it. ↩︎