Apple, child-tracking apps, and our contradictory demands of tech giants

Two big themes in technology right now are, you won’t need me to tell you, privacy and addiction. We are demanding, rightly, that technology companies apply themselves to handle both problems.

That often seems straight forward: don’t sell my data… and stop making me look at my damn phone all the time. When companies pledge to be do just that, we are suspicious. Data and attention means money.

And so it came to pass, on Saturday, the New York Times ran a piece headlined “Apple cracks down on apps that fight iPhone addiction“. Here’s Jack Nicas’s lede:

They all tell a similar story: They ran apps that helped people limit the time they and their children spent on iPhones. Then Apple created its own screen-time tracker. And then Apple made staying in business very, very difficult.

Boooooo, Apple! Booooo, Tim Cook, you hypocrite! All this time you’ve been telling us about how you’ve taken addiction seriously, and here are some some apps helping parents control their kids: and you deleted them?!

Yes, said Apple. Of course it deleted them. Because if it didn’t, the story could have so easily been: “Apple was aware of third-party apps remotely tracking children, and did nothing fearing bad press”.

Here’s how they explained the decision in a statement published on Sunday:

Over the last year, we became aware that several of these parental control apps were using a highly invasive technology called Mobile Device Management, or MDM. MDM gives a third party control and access over a device and its most sensitive information including user location, app use, email accounts, camera permissions, and browsing history.

That’s not good at all. And so:

When we found out about these guideline violations, we communicated these violations to the app developers, giving them 30 days to submit an updated app to avoid availability interruption in the App Store. Several developers released updates to bring their apps in line with these policies. Those that didn’t were removed from the App Store.

What this episode shows is that when we look at the same issue, but with a different hot-button lens, we can draw vastly different conclusions about the apparent evils of big tech. Apple had no way of handling this without opening itself up to looking weak on privacy or addiction.

On a different day, Nicas may have gone all-in on the companies tracking children using an Apple “feature” that is open to abuse, rather than Apple itself. Indeed, that’s what TechCrunch’s Josh Constine did when he found a company — er, Facebook — doing precisely that.

(The obvious follow-up story here is: how many other sectors are abusing MDM, and does Apple know about it? Also: why is Google seemingly getting a free pass with its comparatively wild Android store?)

Apple’s ‘biggest mistake’

Jon Gruber on conitinued complaints about the shockingly-bad keyboard on new MacBooks:

These keyboards are the biggest mistake in Apple’s history.

He goes on to say Apple must be hard at work working on a new keyboard, and that it would take time to roll out across the MacBook line.

What baffles me: the old Macbook keyboard was the best in the industry. Comfortable, satisfying, reliable. So what R&D is required, exactly? Just put the old one back in already.

The best font gets a refresh

Hail Helvetica Now!

Those of us who nerd over fonts—that’s all of us, whether you know it or not—will enjoy Arielle Pardes’s feature on the change, just published on Wired:

Monotype has given Helvetica a face-lift, in the hopes that it can restore some of the magic to the iconic typeface. The new version, Helvetica Now, updates each of Helvetica’s 40,000 characters to reflect the demands of the 21st century. It’s designed to be more legible in miniature, like on the tiny screen of an Apple Watch, and hold its own in large-scale applications like gigantic billboards. Nix, who has spent two years reengineering the letters, hopes it will let designers see Helvetica in an entirely new way. To him, it’s like looking at “someone you love, when the light hits them the perfect way on a Saturday morning, and you suddenly see them like you’ve never seen them before. It’s like falling in love all over again.”

Samsung’s phone suffers some breaking news

Here’s my latest for BBC News pulling in reports of Samsung’s fantastical new folding phone having some rather big, and embarrassing, issues:

We’re still waiting on a statement from Samsung about this. But it’s a significant setback to the company’s hopes of wowing the world with what, on first glance, was a very impressive feat of engineering.

How big a disaster is this for Samsung? I don’t think it can be easily dismissed. If this breaks for reviewers, it will break for consumers. Ergo, it’s not ready—as many had suggested might be the case. Huawei must be delighted.

It’s been a couple of hours since the first reports of iffy devices, and Samsung is still yet to comment. It needs to if it’s to get on top of the bad press here. Something tells me there might be a disconnect between its US and South Korean press teams—we saw that happen a lot during the good old exploding battery days.

A tiny bit of relief for Samsung, though, comes via the WSJ’s Geoffrey Fowler:

Unforeseen circumstance: 5G may reduce the accuracy of weather reporting

As 5G begins to roll-out globally, there will be no shortage of people claiming adverse side effects. You can ignore them, mostly.

I say mostly, as there is one issue that is maybe worth some attention.  Credible experts suggest the frequencies used by 5G may have an affect on the accuracy of weather reports. This Hackaday piece is dense, but clear:

The satellites that watch our weather are largely passive sensor platforms that measure the energy reflected or emitted by objects below them. They gather data on temperature and moisture — pressure is still measured chiefly by surface measurements and by radiosondes — by looking at the planet in different wavelengths. Temperature is measured mainly in the optical wavelengths, both visible and infrared, but water vapor is a bit harder to measure. That’s where microwaves come in, and where weather prediction stands to run afoul of the 5G rollout.

Because:

For water vapor, 23.8-GHz turns out to be very useful, and very much in danger of picking up interference from 5G, which will use frequencies very close to that.

I don’t to quote too much of the Hackaday piece, as you should just read it. But, this emphasises the importance of meteorologists having water vapour data:

In late October of 2012, as Hurricane Sandy barreled up the East coast of the United States, forecasts showed that the storm would take a late turn to the northwest and make landfall in New Jersey. An analysis of the forecast if the microwave radiometer data had not been available showed the storm continuing in a wide arc and coming ashore in the Gulf of Maine. The availability of ASMU data five days in advance of the storm’s landfall bought civil authorities the time needed to prepare, and probably reduced the casualties caused by the “Storm of the Century”, still the deadliest storm of the 2012 season.

As I say, worth thinking about from a safety reason, but also a business one – meteorology firms have had to pay big sums to use the spectrum for that purpose, and they’ll likely want to protect that investment, presenting another potential legal hurdle to 5G, especially in the US.

What you can safely ignore, though, are things like this, which I spotted recently in San Francisco’s Haight district:

Probably a lost cause, friend

Death threats left online for good reason, Twitter says

A shocking Twitter “moment” that circulated on Monday highlighted dozens of instances of obvious hate speech towards US congresswoman Ilhan Omar.

What was most disturbing, aside from the comments themselves, was the fact they seemed to remain on the platform so long. But, Buzzfeed’s Alex Kantrowitz writes:

Twitter would’ve typically taken down the threatening tweets once they were reported, but the company left them up to enable potential law enforcement collaboration, a source close to the company told BuzzFeed News. The Capitol Hill police are working on the issue, the source said.

The incident highlights Twitter’s flawed approach to dealing with death threats on its platform. Instead of reporting death threats to law enforcement as a policy, Twitter simply deletes them. This means its users can make these threats with little fear of retribution, since the tweets usually disappear before police can review them.

Here’s a question: Are you telling me Twitter’s engineers aren’t capable of devising a system to get around this glaring issue?

YouTube’s Notre Dame blunder

In the scheme of things, it’s a minor point on an utterly devastating day for our cultural history.

But, as the ashes at Notre Dame start to settle, there should absolutely be a post-mortem into how YouTube can get things spectacularly wrong, yet again:

Several news outlets quickly started livestreaming the fire on YouTube. However, underneath several of them was a small gray panel titled “September 11 attacks,” which contained a snippet from an Encyclopedia Britannica article about 9/11. The feature is part of a larger rollout of tools and disclaimers to prevent users from consuming misinformation on the platform.

YouTube’s statement:

“These panels are triggered algorithmically and our systems sometimes make the wrong call. We are disabling these panels for live streams related to the fire.”

What always stands out to me when something big like this happens, is that the people who spot YouTube acting improperly never seem to be YouTube itself.

The whole world was watching those streams, and yet nobody at YouTube deemed it necessary to see how their site was performing.

At Facebook last week, the company told us about how they are stepping up their detection and removal tools for harmful content, but in response to one question about human intervention, the company confirmed it didn’t a team of humans that would proactively go out and try and find instances of abuses.

Instead, as we’ve seen today, it’s apparently journalists doing that job.

By linking 9/11 to the Notre Dame fire, when there is as yet no suggestion of it being a terrorist attack, is more than misinformation – it’s borderline incitement. Here’s how Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, put it:

Cosmetics firm abandons social media (Update: sort of)

If this is a trend, it’s one worth keeping an eye on: Lush UK, the cosmetics firm famed for its stinky shops, has decided it can’t justify paying to get into newsfeeds with ads. And, attempts to arrive there organically are apparently not worth it either.

Why is this important? If brands don’t find value in being in a newsfeed, it’s because they know customer attention has shifted elsewhere. And, from what we know about shifts in how youngsters in particular are using social media, Lush is probably making a solid call. Replicate this across many advertisers and the networks have a problem on their hands.

The issue will be exacerbated by the growth of very good tools to interact with customers via a company’s own website. Hence, this:

So, Lush is saying: we don’t care about ads on social media, and we don’t care about customer service either—because we have better ways to achieve all that.

As I say, an interesting trend.

UPDATE:

Have just seen this by my colleague Zoe Kleinman suggesting it’s a pivot, rather than all-out abandonment:

[Lush] also hinted that it would be trying a new social approach – and it suggested a hashtag for those wishing to chat with it.

Mike Blake-Crawford from marketing agency Social Chain said the hashtag hinted at “more work with influencers”.

“The challenge for me is how they adequately capitalise on this conversation without a centralised social media ‘home’ for their products and campaigns,” he said.