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?)