Data protection is Apple’s trademark. The company brags that it created “the world’s safest consumer platform” – but its pretenses are misleading, and it really hurts.
Last month, researchers led by Amnesty International revealed that an Israeli company had developed spyware that cracked the much-lauded iPhone and made it possible to track all of your phone calls, messages and digital transactions.
That shouldn’t be so shocking. Data protection is always vulnerable in the digital age. The superior connectivity that digital technology offers inevitably means that our lives are becoming increasingly exposed, and the more we live our lives digitally, the more exposed we are.
Inevitability does not excuse risk obscuring.
Apple trumpets about its privacy and exaggerates the merits of its products, giving consumers a false sense of security that makes us lose our vigilance and only makes us easier targets for spies. If Apple does everything in its power to protect us, great – it should say so. However, such claims should avoid creating the impression that users have digital privacy.
We must give credit where it is appropriate: Apple took a giant step this year when it scorned Facebook and other digital marketers with a new privacy feature on the iPhone. It enables users to opt out of tracking their digital transactions. Three quarters of iPhone users have accepted this offer.
Also earlier that year, Apple introduced a location tracking device called AirTags, a bluetooth-enabled tag designed to help iPhone users find a missing item like their keys or wallet. The company introduced it with restrictions designed to protect privacy and prevent stalking, for example to warn you if the system thinks someone else’s AirTag is moving with you and report your location.
Among tech giants, Apple takes a lonely, moral stance on privacy that CEO Tim Cook has called a human right.
Precisely because Apple has promoted its safety, investigative journalists, political activists and human rights activists around the world have chosen to use iPhones for their often sensitive and dangerous communications. Amnesty International announced that the iPhones they rely on could be compromised by spyware called Pegasus and that the vulnerability has been in place for at least five years.
Perhaps most devastatingly, Pegasus is a “zero-click” exploit, which means you don’t have to click on a dodgy message or link to activate it. If you just get it in a disguised message, the spyware will be implanted. And then you are bugged on your own cell phone.
The Israeli company behind this spyware, NSO Group, sold its product to governments. The researchers found heads of state, journalists and activists as well as related contacts such as members of the family of the killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi among 50,000 telephone numbers of potential surveillance targets. It is unclear how many were successfully bugged.
Everyday users are toured by Apple’s emphasis on empowering users to protect their privacy. It’s pretty awesome, while also boosting Apple’s moral standing around privacy and giving us a sense of control. Apple’s privacy tool suggests we can choose who to share our data with, how and when. It suggests that we have an idea of ââhow our spies operate, how they follow us, what they want and for what purpose.
However, the idea that we could achieve a certain level of equality with our spies has always been delusional.
Apple has to keep playing catch-up with surveillance innovators like the NSO Group. It’s asymmetric warfare: Apple’s defenses would have to be 100% flawless to be successful, but the hackers and spies only need an infinitesimally small success rate.
Some privacy advocates even fear that Apple’s latest security measure, a technology announced Thursday to detect or send sexual images of children to children, will make iMessage more vulnerable to spying. It was encrypted between the sender and recipient, but now the content is monitored and can be reported to third parties.
More and more often, spies don’t even need our data to keep an eye on us; our metadata is sufficient. Analysts can tell by how we hold our phones – at what angle – and how we swipe the screen. Apparently they realized that this is unique to each of us. And digital marketers can bypass Apple’s protection from tracking through a method called fingerprinting, which uses information like screen resolution, operating system version, and phone model to identify a user across multiple apps. No hacking required.
How can we stay one step ahead of the constantly innovative spies? We will not. Act accordingly.
Be accountable in what you do and say to whom and how. Reflect, slow down, and think about what you are sharing. Assume someone is always listening.
Apple might remind us to protect ourselves by dropping the pretext of privacy.
Firmin DeBbander, author of Life After Privacy, is Professor of Philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art.