It’s hard to argue against stories like this and this because any nut job can accuse you of being anti-privacy or an apologist. These stories have some merit, but come on. At what point does this stop? We’re coming up on a year of these types of stories. Next up — BREAKING: Android and iOS can access your processor core.
Nilay Patel has the best response I’ve seen yet:
Android and iOS are operating systems that run on computers. Granted, these computers are smaller than the ones you grew up with, but they’re still computers. And guess what? In many ways, they work like computers have in past — including the ability of accessing your other files. It’s a feature, not a bug.
I get that mobile devices are the most personal forms of computing yet. And anytime you say that anything or anyone can “secretly copy” your photos, you’re going to get people running for the hills (and more importantly, reading your story).
Not everything done in computing is intended to be nefarious. At some point, you simply have to trust that someone — be it Apple, Google, or an app developer — isn’t out to screw you over. Likewise, when you leave your house each day, you have to trust that you’re not going to be mugged. You may well be, but you can’t live your life in fear of it or you’d never leave your house.
The New York Times apparently wants us to have smartphones that prompt you to make sure you want to turn them on, prompt you to make sure you want to open an app, prompt you to make sure you want to send a tweet, prompt you to make sure you want to jump from an app to a web page, prompt you to make sure you want to adjust the brightness (a stranger may be able to read your phone more easily over your shoulder!!).
We’re one step away from a call for apps that prompt you if you’d like a prompt about something. Excuse me while I go hide in a hut in the woods and write a manifesto.
I’m honestly not sure which is more concerning:
1) That Google is doing things to bypass the privacy settings in Internet Explorer.
2) That Microsoft had absolutely no idea that Google was doing this until the (somewhat misleading) Wall Street Journal article last week.
Update: Google: Microsoft Is Full Of Shit
At first glance, this sounds really bad. I mean, really bad. The Wall Street Journal essentially sets it up as Google (and other, smaller advertising players) purposefully circumventing the web browsing privacy controls on the iPhone in order to track users’ browsing habits.
And when they got caught, Google stopped doing it. Which is usually not a good sign.
But my initial reaction is that John Battelle is right. This is much more nuanced than a simple black and white argument. Mobile Safari does have stricter privacy controls than other browsers, which is likely a very good thing for most users, but it also benefits Apple because it essentially destroys Google’s business.
And it’s a business that you could argue is helpful to some people for a number of reasons (all the free services Google is able to provide as a result, for example).
I just don’t believe this is as big of an “evil” Google thing as WSJ may have us believe. But having said that, if this really is mainly about Google+, that’s very poor form on Google’s part. You can argue that Google web ads are useful in certain situations and that data Google gets from cookies on the web makes them better. But the whole +1 junk is forced at best.
One thing is certain: Apple is not going to like this one bit. This seems like the kind of thing Steve Jobs would have gone ballistic over. This will undoubtedly escalate the war between the two sides.
Update 2/17: Not Tracking, Just Lying
As an iOS lover and Path champion, a number of folks have asked for my take on the Path address book situation of yesterday and today. I’ve avoided weighing in for two reasons: first, I wanted to talk to some other actual developers about the situation. Second, the fact that CrunchFund is an investor will render my take moot by some. But there are still a few things not being said that should be.
First, I agree with everyone that there should be a prompt to send your address book data to third-party servers. And with their newest version out today, Path is doing just that.
One thing overshadowed by this situation is that there’s a reason Path was doing this — and it was anything but nefarious: it makes the service more useful. Path is about your personal connections and the best way to establish those connections is for Path to find your true friends also on the network. What’s a great signal if someone is a true friend? If their information is in your address book and if you’re in their’s.
Path wasn’t trying to gain your address book to cold call all of your friends and bug them to join Path. Nor were they going to sell this data to marketers. They weren’t even auto-friending people (which way too many apps do). It was simply to ease the connection building process by giving users good recommendations.
Here’s the other key thing: a number of your favorite social apps do the exact same thing. And some have for a very long time — for years, actually.
The fact that there hasn’t been an issue in all these years as a result is a good sign. It shows that these apps, like Path, were simply using the access which iOS provides to strengthen social connections within apps.
Yes, it’s weird that Apple, which has the App Store approval process on lock-down and requires prompts for things like accessing location information doesn’t do the same for address book information. My understanding is that Apple has been looking at this issue and it will probably change in a future iOS update.
For what it’s worth, I’m told that Apple’s iOS developer agreement does contain some wording that may prohibit such actions, but the wording is too vague. And again, Apple screens all these apps and hasn’t rejected one as a result of this address book transfer yet.
Given Path’s mission to be your most personal and most private network, I think it’s fair to hold their feet to the fire about this issue simply because it wasn’t stated that it was happening. My CrunchFund partner Michael Arrington publicly called on Path to “nuke” this data collected before the prompt, and they have. Good call.
But if we’re going to freak out about this situation, it’s naive to freak out about it over one app. Again, this is happening all across the iOS ecosystem. And no one has said a thing. For years.
The good news: look for all of this to change. I’ve spoken to a number of developers planning to implement some sort of opt-in-to-address-book-data prompt, just as Path did today. Again, this wasn’t some sneaky attempt to steal your data and sell it off or whatnot, it simply utilizing an option that was put in front of these developers. And they all seem happy to do that in a more transparent way.
Jason nails the most recent Facebook privacy flare up. Much ado about nothing. For most users, this will be a very useful feature (and actually has been for some time).
But hey, don’t let me stop some lawmaker from trying to make a name for themselves by leveraging both fear and a big tech company that everyone knows (Facebook here, but fill in Google, Apple, Microsoft, etc — it’s always the same bullshit).