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How China complicates Apple’s chest-thumping about privacy

How China complicates Apple’s chest-thumping about privacy

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A former Facebook executive points out that Apple likely has to make compromises, too

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Our biggest tech companies generally don’t criticize one another in public. But over the past year, there’s been a glaring exception: Apple CEO Tim Cook’s all-out rhetorical assault on Facebook and Google.

On Wednesday Cook delivered some of his strongest criticism yet of advertising-supported tech giants. Here’s James Vincent in The Verge:

Speaking at a privacy conference in Brussels, Cook gave an impassioned and forceful speech. He reiterated familiar talking points like Apple’s commitment to privacy (and, by implication, its rivals lack of commitment) while spelling out public concerns in recent years regarding data collection, surveillance, and manipulation.

Cook said that modern technology has led to the creation of a “data-industrial complex” in which private and everyday information is “weaponized against us with military efficiency.” He added that this mechanism doesn’t just affect individuals, but whole societies.

He went on to indict algorithmic feeds and the ways in which they are abused: “Platforms and algorithms that promised to improve our lives can actually magnify our worst human tendencies. Rogue actors and even governments have taken advantage of user trust to deepen divisions, incite violence, and even undermine our shared sense of what is true and what is false. This crisis is real. It is not imagined, or exaggerated, or crazy.”

Indeed — there are even daily newsletters about it!

Cook’s speech had an important, and unstated, element of self-interest. Regular readers of this column know that California passed a privacy law this year that attempts to bring General Data Protection Regulation-style privacy protections to its citizens. All the big platforms are leery of a patchwork of such regulations breaking out all over the country. That’s why Cook took time today to call for a national privacy regulation, one which would allow Apple to operate uniformly across the country.

But Cook’s commitment to privacy comes with an asterisk: the company’s government-ordered requirement to store iCloud user data on the servers of a state-run telecom. Alex Stamos, the recently departed chief security officer of Facebook, pointed out the issue in a valuable Twitter thread.

“Tim is right, privacy is a fundamental human right,” Stamos wrote. “I believe that Chinese people should have the same access to fundamental human rights as the rest of the world. Apple needs to document how they protect data stored by a PRC-owned cloud provider.”

As Stamos points out, iMessage is the only approved messaging app with end-to-end encryption allowed in China. He called on Apple to disclose under what circumstances Chinese authorities could access iCloud backups — and whether Apple made concessions there it hasn’t made elsewhere.

“Perhaps the answer is ‘no concessions, there is no practical mechanism for the MSS to get access to iCloud data,” he said, referring to the Ministry of State Security. “That would be wonderful, but we shouldn’t assume it to be true.”

Apple declined to comment when I asked. In July, when the company made the deal with China’s Guizhou-Cloud Big Data, Apple issued a lengthy statement in which they reiterated their commitment to privacy and security. But they also said this:

Each country in which we do business has its own customs, culture and legal process. While our values and beliefs don’t change from country to country, we are subject to each country’s laws. 

Of course, even if Apple has made concessions to the Chinese government, it doesn’t mean the company isn’t sincere about its belief in a right to privacy. Nor does it take away the very real steps Apple does take to protect users’ privacy, particularly when compared to Facebook and Google.

But Facebook employees have had to endure months of taunting from Cook, and to date the company has mostly suffered in silence. Stamos doesn’t work there anymore, and he doesn’t speak for Facebook in any official capacity. Still, I’d wager that his former colleagues cheered when they saw his tweetstorm today. (At press time, he had just posted a second one, lamenting the positive coverage Cook got for his remarks.)

Google and Facebook have faced blistering criticism lately for their attempts to work in China. That Apple has operated for so long in the country with so little discussion of the potential for government access to user data seems, in light of Cook’s speech, all the more conspicuous.

Democracy

Facebook, Twitter Can’t Find China Election Meddling Trump Claims

The president said China is meddling in the election. There is no evidence that China is, according to Facebook, Twitter, and many others.

’This is how Donald Trump stays president for four more years’

Trump plans to rely less on Facebook for his reelection campaign, according to this report by Alex Thompson. I’m skeptical — whatever the president’s claims of “bias,” he’s still a top Facebook advertiser, and the platform will presumably continue to be quite useful for fundraising purposes.

The emerging tech strategy, according to four officials involved in Trump’s reelection campaign, will reduce its reliance on Big Tech platforms — which were the dominant messaging channels in 2016 — to get the president’s message out. The president’s team instead is planning to go around the platforms as much as possible and reach supporters directly, making use of old-school text messaging.

The Wildly Unregulated Practice of Undercover Cops Friending People on Facebook

We’ve talked a bit here about “Bob Smith accounts” — fake profiles used by undercover cops to catch criminals. Kashmir Hill digs in on how little the practice is regulated:

Police have come to recognize the fertile hunting ground of social media and are covertly surveilling people and groups there with little oversight. We don’t know how many people have been targeted for undercover surveillance on social media because police departments don’t keep track in a public manner and prefer, in general, not to discuss it. They’re willing to talk about posing as kids online to snare sexual predators—a relatively uncontroversial undercover practice—but they’re far more secretive about targeting suspected gang members, protestors and other “people of interest.” We reached out to dozens of police departments around the country to ask what their policies are when it comes to undercover Facebook police work and discovered that very few have any kind of formal rules governing it.

Clarence Thomas’s Wife is Sharing Fake News About the “Caravan”

Ginni Thomas is promoting a bunch of misinformation about the group of people seeking refuge in America.

Fact-checking is clearly not part of her process. So when a meme began moving around the internet — a photo of a Mexican law officer supposedly bloodied by the “caravan” — in her mind, a hoard of savage beasts hell bent on invading via our southern border — she was among the first to post it on Facebook.

Fact-checking is clearly not part of her process. So when a meme began moving around the internet — a photo of a Mexican law officer supposedly bloodied by the “caravan” — in her mind, a hoard of savage beasts hell bent on invading via our southern border — she was among the first to post it on Facebook.

Older People Are Worse Than Young People at Telling Fact from Opinion

Young people get a lot of flack these days, for killing mayonnaise and golf and lots of other things. But you know what young people are great ad? Recognizing the truth when they see it. Here’s Alexis Madrigal on some new Pew research:

Given 10 statements, five each of fact and opinion, younger Americans correctly identified both the facts and the opinions at higher rates than older Americans did. Forty-four percent of younger people identified all five opinions as opinions, while only 26 percent of older people did. And 18-to-29-year-olds performed more than twice as well as the 65+ set. Of the latter group, only 17 percent classified all five facts as factual statements.

On the individual questions, the identification gap was particularly large regarding the nature of the American government and questions about immigration, but there was no statement that younger Americans did not identify with equal or higher accuracy than their elders.

Snapchat Helped Register Over 400,000 Voters

Hey, thanks Snapchat:

Snap, the company behind the popular social media service, said on Tuesday that it had helped more than 400,000 users register to vote during a recent two-week period. Much of the activity, the company said, was in key battleground states like Texas, Florida and Georgia.

Snapchat, which is popular among teenagers and young adults, pushed people 18 and over to register by adding a button about doing so on each user’s profile page. The company also sent video messages to all of those users urging them to register.

Elsewhere

Twitter tests new profile features, including presence indicators and ‘ice breakers’

Twitter wants to promote more and better conversations. I spoke with two top product executives, Sara Haider and Mike Kruzeniski, who showed me some prototypes. There’s some cool stuff in here — check it out.

Facebook unveils systems for catching child nudity, grooming of children

Facebook said Wednesday that moderators removed 8.7 million user images of child nudity over the past quarter. It’s also using machine learning to detect instances of creeps attempting to friend young children.

How Facebook’s Messenger Got Its New Look in a New Jersey Basement

I got one version of the origin story for the new Messenger. Steven Levy got another one, which is that it was all the idea of a 23-year-old intern working from his basement.

Snap hires new chief business officer, chief strategy officer

Today’s good news for Snap (other than that voter registration thing) is that it lured two new executives to join: Jeremi Gorman who was previously head of advertising sales for Amazon, will become chief business officer; and Jared Grusd who was most recently CEO of The Huffington Post, will become its chief strategy officer.

Snap Employees Are Eyeing Exit As Stock Sinks on Cheddar

Today’s bad news for Snap is that in an internal survey, 40 percent of employees say they’re planning to leave the company.

Launches

Facebook is now downranking stories with false headlines

In September a partisan war over fact-checking on Facebookbroke out, based on a story from ThinkProgress in which a headline said Brett Kavanaugh “said’ something that he did not, in fact, say. Now Facebook is adding some nuance to the fact-checking process, letting fact-checkers note whether the headline is false, the story is false, or both are false. If the headline is true but the story is false, it will be shown to more people than if the headline is false but the story is true. (Stares off into the middle distance for 15 minutes.)

Takes

The Problem With Fixing WhatsApp? Human Nature Might Get in the Way

Farhad Manjoo says the real problem with WhatsApp is human nature. I have a different view, which is that WhatsApp uniquely enables hateful mobs through its combination of end-to-end encryption and anonymous message forwarding. I say ditch the message forwarding and watch the problems disappear:

It’s a story of human nature. And that’s why, beyond learning to inhibit our natural tendency to share, it’s hard to know what can be done about false news on WhatsApp — other than bracing yourself for more.

Twitter raises the curtain on disinformation. Other companies should take a tip.

The Post editorial board pats Twitter on the back for sharing a trove of tweets from a Russian influence campaign:

Other companies should take a tip from Twitter and make the data they collect on disinformation more widely available. Though Twitter’s structure gives it a leg up over its peers such as Facebook, sites across the board should disclose as much about influence campaigns as liability concerns allow. It is heartening to see platforms scrubbing themselves of malicious content. But the rest of the country cannot help with cleanup if it does not know what the mess looks like.

And finally ...

Twitter’s Dorsey Hosts ‘Tweetup’ With Tacos to Foster Community

I leave San Francisco for one week and Jack Dorsey decides to host an impromptu “tweetup” and buy tacos for everyone and answer all of their questions about his app. It is amazing and hilarious and honestly wonderful that this insane thing happened, and here’s hoping that it happens again while I’m in town.

Talk to me

Send me tips, comments, questions, and your favorite concessions to the Chinese government: casey@theverge.com.