Apple, privacy, encryption, and trust.

Matthew Panzarino has a great piece up at TechCrunch covering Tim Cook’s recent speech on the topics of encryption and privacy and Apple’s place in the discussion. It’s worth a read if only for some of the Southern subtweet-style smackdowns (alliteration power up!) he lays at the feet of other companies storing and using consumer data. Apple has in the past year taken its previously quiet stance on consumer data privacy to the front lines of its marketing in an effort to hold it up as a differentiator against the current trend of free services that are offered with the hidden cost of absorbing users’ personal information, and Cook in particular has become a vocal proponent of this initiative.

Philosophically, I agree with this. Tactically, the only security you can truly trust is the security you put in place yourself, and manage end-to-end. Realistically, Apple’s position is a middle ground I’m willing to accept in order to live the technological life I’ve grown to enjoy. I understand that the tradeoff I’m accepting is that I trust the company to make the right choices regarding the data I (and my family) share with it. If Apple decides to change direction in the future, I have some hard decisions to make. But for right now, this choice seems clear.

Apple’s business model is selling hardware. This is a fairly common and accepted fact. We pay money for shiny things, and it takes our money and gives us the shiny things. In simple terms, that is how the company became the financial juggernaut it is. Its cloud storage is free to start, but if you want to use it in any meaningful way, you need to pay for it. Again, you pay a fee and it provides a service. It would be naive to assume that the company isn’t collecting some of the data you provide. All companies do this for a variety of reasons. It would also be naive to assume that because the stated goal of protecting customer data is a primary focus, that it will always remain so into the future, and for all time, and is impenetrable to outside forces.

But all security–at a pragmatic and not utopian level–is a compromise between convenience and protection. At this point in the market and in my personal life, Apple’s promise is one I can get behind. I don’t wholly trust any corporate entity (or anything bigger than individual people, for that matter). Any data that you capture, share, or otherwise transmit over a network you don’t control and between servers you don’t manage should always be assumed to be public. If that sounds ridiculous, think about it for a second and then think about it some more in light of everything that’s happened in our world in the past few years. For a normal individual, the compromise Apple is proposing is sufficient to enjoy the technological advances we have at our disposal without losing too much sleep over it.

Trust is something that human beings grant when we want something in return. Apple wants our money, and is willing to leverage our trust as a motivator to continue running a successful business beyond simply offering shiny things. As long as the fundamental balance it provides remains intact, and it does not willingly choose to violate the trust we place in it for any reason, it remains the best of all options for me, and for many others.

Omniscience and oblivion.

Recently I was asked about where I think user experience is headed. After giving it some thought, I was able to distill my idea about it down to a fairly concise dichotomy. Obviously it centers on mobile computing, and the two most interesting parts of it (to me) are:

  1. Presenting information to the user in a contextually relevant way without much (if any) external interaction on his/her part
  2. Increasing security and/or ensuring that the loop for transactional activities is closed, in the face of continued compromises of sensitive financial information

There are two products that exemplify these goals in the market right now, supplied by two companies whose philosophies couldn’t be more divergent, but yet are intertwined: Google Now and Apple Pay. Let’s get one thing out of the way quickly–this is not going to be a “who’s better” post. It’s simply an examination of two different approaches to solving two big problems for users. The biggest difference being the diametrically opposed underpinnings of how the two technologies work.

Google Now’s promise is that if you hook your life into Google’s services, the massive intelligence behind those services will parse as much as possible from what you provide and surface information to you at the most relevant times possible, without you even having to lift a finger. Apple Pay creates a bubble of security around each purchase that you conduct with it, allowing for unique financial transactions, hiding your identity and information from merchants and potential data theft. Both are amazing in their own ways, and both edge ever closer to the fuzzy, nostalgic ideals that the World’s Fairs of yesteryear told us the future would bring.

The difference is that one service wants to know every single thing it possibly can about you to build a world of information around your activities, and the other wants to purposefully know as little as possible about you so that it can obfuscate the sensitive information that passes between two parties during a financial transaction.

I’m enthralled by both of these worlds, but to date, I’ve only embraced one of them. As we continue into the future, and more of our personal information–even the most innocuous bits–exist on the servers of other companies, I become wary of how and when it will be used. I’m not kept up at night thinking about it, but I’m still far more comfortable using Apple Pay for a purchase than dumping everything about myself into Google so I can find out if my flight is late, or how long it will take me to get home. Those examples are rather trite, but it illustrates my point: the two aspects of software that I’ve outlined are both insanely cool and interesting to me, but the overall value I can derive today is far higher with Apple Pay. More importantly, I’m left wondering how I can enjoy the benefits of something like Google Now without sacrificing my feelings about my data. I just don’t know if it’s possible, and I may change my mind about how I feel down the road.

I’ve been fascinated with technology throughout my entire life. It’s a source of creativity and consternation. Amazement and horror. It always has been and always will be a series of trade-offs and opposing forces. I think as we try to solve more of our problems in these new ways, the two ends of the spectrum get pulled closer together, and I’m not sure how that makes me feel. I’m along for the ride, though, until I pull the ripcord and go live on a beach in blissful, ignorant solitude. Until then, my fingerprint is my passport. Verify me.

Doing it right.

The technologies introduced at this year’s WWDC have gotten the development community extremely excited about the potential to extend iOS in previously unavailable ways. To me, one of the most interesting parts of these new advancements is the creation of a Touch ID API for developers. In its current implementation, Touch ID is somewhat limited and many users report inconsistency issues with the technology. But if the accuracy improves (likely after a year of further development, and reports from iOS 8 beta users are anecdotally positive) and developers capitalize on the ability to easily validate user identity, a lot of new uses come to mind. One of the most interesting and potentially useful so far has been the 1Password extension created by AgileBits, which allows 3rd-party app developers to build support in their apps for the 1Password app to fill login fields and access other secure data using a fingerprint.

There’s another interesting part of the expansion of Touch ID, though. If Apple continues to add it to new devices–which it almost certainly will as the increased sapphire glass production necessary to support the hardware gets up to speed–then the company finds itself in a unique position as the prevalence of users with Apple IDs tied to credit cards grows. Mobile “wallets” have been slow to gain acceptance in the mainstream for a variety of reasons (primarily limited mobile hardware support and expensive POS hardware required on the part of the retailers). Apple is known for making big moves and strategic partnerships with a lot of cachet that it can laud at its press events and keynotes. A few of those key partnerships could easily drive awareness of mobile payments for retail purchases firmly into the mind of the mainstream user, instead of languishing on the bleeding edge. Many retailers already have some kind of iPhone/mobile integration in place, but the last mile–the actual payment–is still primarily a manual affair. Programs exist for users to pre-load loyalty cards in advance (e.g. Starbucks) but the trick is going to be transforming this process from one requiring proactive steps to one that is reactive at the moment of purchase, while appearing seamless to the typical user, who will tolerate far less than tech fans when it comes to exploring these kinds of things.

The iPhone was the breakthrough device to sell the notion and utility of the smartphone to the general public. It’s the most popular type of camera on Flickr and presumably among many segments of the population. Apple commands interest in the public consciousness in a way that few other companies can. It’s traditionally had a focus on platform security with iOS, which it leverages as a selling point against other mobile platforms, most notably Android, and it continues to trumpet privacy and security in consumer-focused materials and media. While that’s a great story in and of itself for many of us, the seed of something larger gets planted: Apple is secure, iOS is secure, my iPhone is safe, hence I am safe. When security ceases to be something people need to think about and is easy, obvious, and ubiquitous, resistance to new ways of doing things will evaporate. While there are all kinds of phones with some level of this functionality right now, the iPhone is probably the only single consumer hardware device positioned to do this effectively any time soon.

The notion of the Apple ID as a payment mechanism for non-iTunes content is an idea that’s been tossed around for a while. None of this is news to anyone. Whenever Apple finally decides to announce that you can use your Apple ID for more than just iTunes purchases by simply accessing Touch ID when you’re in your favorite retail stores, tons of people will claim to have been predicting it for years. Widespread acceptance won’t be far behind. Critics will bemoan the fact that other phones and platforms did it first, but as with Apple’s previous innovations, the key to success wasn’t being first, it was doing it right. It’s the combination of cultural penetration and acceptance along with a longtime and public focus on security at a critical time in society that ensures that people won’t dismiss it as a gimmick. The utility will become infectious as people see their friends using the technology, and Touch ID will probably become as ubiquitous as the camera in your phone is now.

I think your thumb is about to become your favorite finger.

Facebook wants access to your hard drive. You’re cool with that, right?

Poor Facebook. It’s been such a hot topic lately. From its changes to the privacy policies on a system-wide scale to the Zynga kerfuffle and now the idea to scan users’ computers with anti-virus software before allowing access, it’s the target of a lot of speculation, FUD, and intense debate among technology enthusiasts and from news organizations looking to do what they do best – incite panic among the general populace. Remember swine flu? We should all be dead by now. But I digress.

With a network as enormous and valuable as the one Facebook maintains, any miniscule change to the way users interact with the site won’t simply fly under the radar. And due to the platform created for applications focusing on connection and ease-of-use within the massive user base, it’s become a natural point of interest for hackers, spammers, and otherwise nefarious individuals.

The anti-virus story is the one with which I’m concerned. On one hand, it’s perfectly understandable that FB wants to keep intrusions and infections to a minimum. Nasty things can propagate extremely quickly throughout the community, since people have been totally de-conditioned to be suspicious of activities on Facebook that would ordinarily raise a million red flags on their own machines. Oh, someone from high school that I don’t really talk to but felt obligated to reciprocally add as a friend wants to see what movies I’m watching? Sure, why not. Someone has a funny video of me from a party I never attended and I “have to see it!”? Might as well click that link and see what’s so funny! In cases like this, comfort breeds bad behaviors.

These are things most people would avoid had they come from anywhere other than Facebook, but since it’s all part of this lovely blue-and-white gated community we all joined, it seems safer. Which is why they’ve partnered with McAfee to try to stop any extra garbage from entering the neighborhood from our dirty, filthy machines. So they might give us a quick checkup before we walk in from now on. That’s cool, it seems like killing two birds with one stone, and gosh darn it – isn’t that thoughtful of them to be looking out for us?

Problem is, I keep a lot of information on my computer that appears nowhere online, and is completely private – financial data, personal correspondence, business contact information and conversations, and so on. The thought of an entity like Facebook poking its (admittedly) vulnerable nose around my hard drive’s innards just so I can log in and hide a bunch of crap updates from people who have entirely too much free time on their hands and for whom actual agricultural work is an abhorrent idea is NOT one that sits well with me.

First of all, there’s a lucrative financial arrangement with McAfee. Assume there’s a truckload of money getting dumped daily at Facebook HQ for the opportunity to be the safety chief over there. Assume also that since the AV market is generally more reactionary than proactive (hey there, TSA!) that even if something bad happens, no one’s taking credit for dropping the ball. In fact, you, the user, will probably get blamed somehow. McAfee is doing well here too – think about how many eyeballs see those ads every day.

Secondly, knowing what we do about Facebook’s penchant for nebulous privacy policies – even in spite of efforts to clarify their own statements – I’m not exactly comfortable with anyone, let alone someone whose intentions for my data are not completely transparent, go peeking at EVERYTHING I have on my computer! I use a Mac, so I’m in a smaller subset of users who are at slightly reduced risk for infection (I’m not going to make hyperbolic, ill-conceived statements about safety right now), but if I have to submit to a search every time I need to log in to do something, I might be leaving.

Which is not what I want to do at all. I’m not interested in leaving. I like Facebook – really. I’ve reconnected with long-lost friends, made new ones, stayed in touch while abroad and generally enjoyed my time using the service. I’ve placed only things I feel comfortable sharing online within its walls, and my experience has been a very positive one. But that’s going to change if I have to let this overreaching marketing experiment into the confines of my personal machine. It’s only being talked about for some users right now, who’ve been previously compromised, and I’m assuming ones running various flavors of Windows, but if it becomes a service-wide standard for all users, it’s going to be an issue for me.

I know, I know. Complaining without offering a solution is a waste of everyone’s time. So, let’s start with this.

A better solution (for users, not the marketing department) would be to scan the chosen PC for the presence of an AV package, and check the definition updates. If it’s been more than a predetermined period of time since the last scan, then the user must update and run THEIR OWN software before gaining admission to Facebook. This way the door to the network is closed, but personal data remains that way. It seems simple enough, and I’m not a security expert, but it feels like a better compromise than forcing yourself into a machine that’s not yours. Then again, we’re talking about users who probably don’t pay much attention to what’s going into their machines as it is.

There needs to be an implicit trust between the two parties, based on the knowledge of the situation, and some level of gatekeeping is involved, but it’s specific to the needs of both parties, and not invasive to an extreme.

I know this is far more complicated with network security, but like I said, it’s a start. Facebook’s growth makes it a perfect target. But forcing users to an electronic strip-search before coming in is not the solution.