Freedom in your apps isn’t free
In a disturbing, infuriating, freedom-challenging move typical of our post-9/11 government, it has been revealed that the NSA (and the GCHQ in the UK) has developed the ability to collect private user data (everything from location to age to sexual preference) from so-called “leaky” apps like Angry Birds.
What’s a “leaky” app? It’s any app that transmits private user information across the Internet. Angry Birds is mentioned in documentation specifically because, thanks to a sly advertising code, it uses algorithms to determine location, sexual orientation, political views, and marital status. While the ostensible goal of codes like these is to better target advertising to the user, they could be exploited by intelligence agencies as the perfect ways to keep tabs on citizens. The NSA and GCHQ have developed processes for extracting this information from iOS as well as Android apps.
If you’re horrified by this, you should be. And you’re not alone; Application Developers Alliance president Jon Potter said, “Uninhibited collection of consumers’ personal data by governments hacking into apps is unacceptable.”
So which apps are at risk? Aside from the present-on-most-phones Angry Birds are similarly ubiquitous apps like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and even Google Maps. Far more robust than the information the NSA can already glean from website cookies, the information taken – no, stolen – from your apps will be personal and very telling. While there has been some talk that the laws governing the NSA’s freedom to collect and use information need to be amended, we’re disturbed at these revelations, taken from documents written in 2012. We wonder how much more sophisticated and cunning the NSA has become in the intervening three years. Downloading an app never seemed so Orwellian.
The CIA joins in
If the revelations about the NSA aren’t enough for you, consider that this week also saw the release of classified CIA documents showing the CIA has, for the past several years, been actively looking for a way to crack the security of iPhones and iPads. And the documents show this was more than a theoretical attack vector; it was in fact a presentation displaying how they had already compromised Apple’s existing tools to infiltrate developers.
Specifically at risk is xcode, the Apple-provided development environment in which everything is built. There is no other way to develop for OS X or iOS, and xcode is central to everything developers can do. This would secretly inoculate every iOS developer with the CIA’s virus and have us developers infect our users.
If the CIA is capable of actually compromising the development toolset and installing trojan horses and other unknown surveillance code into users’ iPhones and iPads, they’d be allowed to leverage the trust people have in Apple products to surveil nearly a billion unsuspecting iOS users around the world.
Watch everyone disagree
In the four days since the Apple event, opinions have come fast and furiously on the Appl eWatch. From articles mocking anyone who even thinks of buying one, to videos waxing rhapsodic about its every feature, to measured, objective reports on it’s roses and thorns, everyone has something to say. Certainly it’s caused dissent even among our team’s ranks, with half of us balking at dropping $500 for something that’s not ready for market and feel’s very “1.0 Apple-ish,” and half of us waiting on tenterhooks for the April 10 pre-order date. That’s to be expected: as these already incredibly personal devices become even more so, our reactions to them will be even more varied. It’s no surprise that the 1.0 is a godsend for some and a joke for others.
The general consensus (my hatred of its chunkiness and rounded edges aside) is that it’s the best thing since…the last thing Apple released, and millions of people will run out and buy one. It’ll be a huge success, and in five years we’ll look at this the way we look back at the release of the iPhone or iPad: very successful 1.0 products that solved new jobs for consumers not very well.