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The Rotten Apple

It is not often that a company oscillates between global success and utter failure the way Apple Inc. did: if for no other reason, than because it was recently the richest company in the world and that position was not shared by many companies. While originally a producer of desktop and laptop computers, the Apple fortune has been built on top of the iPod, iPad and iPhone. This article is both about the company and its products: the company’s principles are what matter because they determine its impact on society, but it is mostly the products that reveal the company’s principles.

In a way it makes sense to mention how products are built before discussing how they work. A lot of work on Apple’s products is being done in various factories in China, most prominently, Foxconn‘s. The problem begins with 60-hour work weeks for $100 per month, half of which workers have to pay Foxconn back because they pay for accommodation and food at the factory. The problem is aggravated by child labour and finally culminates with a series of worker suicides so frequent they now require workers to sign a statement promising they will not attempt to kill themselves and have nets in place to prevent workers from jumping off factory buildings (?!). To its defence, it has to be said that Apple started a number of investigations related to work conditions, publishes findings of such reports and has even stopped doing business with a few of over a hundred companies in China it worked with. However, Apple could have chosen any of a number of companies in the world to work with, but they concluded that Foxconn and the like provided the ideal combination of quality, adherence to deadlines and human rights violations. I suppose it goes without saying that if workers of a huge factory worked under those conditions in the USA, blood would paint the streets in a week. Apple seems to send a clear message: “We do not lose sleep about western principles or values. We would certainly not work that way in the USA: it would not be tolerated…but if it were and if the price was right, sure, we would be willing to talk about it.”

But enough of third world doom and gloom: such images do not fit very well into a well lit and tastefully designed showroom of an Apple store. While the iPod gave Apple a healthy cash flow, it is the iPhone that really launched it into its current position of wealth and power. And the iPhone, it appears, is also a surveillance device and a security hole, all in one. The device automatically frequently records its location together with a time-stamp into a file on its filesystem. This is a problem in more ways than one. Because this information is periodically sent to Apple, the device effectively becomes a surveillance tool. Because this was only made known by users, it was (at least for a time) a covert surveillance mechanism. The discovery has not made the point moot: there is little doubt that the majority of iPhone users still have no idea that the device tracks and reports their location. That the file is not secured comprises a gaping security hole. To illustrate, let’s pretend that George is a tech-savvy burglar. George writes a few free games (or haves them written), polished but nothing fancy (e.g. Sudoku) and adds code which reads the location information and sends it back to him at any time he chooses. If the (stylish and free) games are downloaded often enough, he will be able to see locations of device owners in his area. He can easily see travel patterns: “This guy works from 9 to 5, he’s probably single (not at home much), tends to party down-town on Saturdays until early morning…” etc. George collects the information and knows when people are out of the house or out of the country so that he can relieve their apartments of any unnecessary property without disturbing the inhabitants. I’m sure there are many other scenarios describing abuse of such information. This would be bad if users were aware that their cellphone is leaving a neat trail of breadcrumbs behind, but it is downright horrid when it is done without users’ knowledge. A number of lawsuits at the moment serve to illustrate that people were extremely unpleasantly surprised by the discovery. For the moment, it remains unclear if users can prevent their phones from working this way.

The iPhone and iPad also have what is commonly referred to as a “kill switch“. It too had to be discovered by the public, rather than Apple actually telling anyone in advance. Users can install only software from the Apple App Store and the kill switch is a feature which allows Apple to remove any application installed from the App Store on any iPhone or iPad. Apple doesn’t have to justify the removal, it doesn’t have to have a valid reason and it doesn’t have to ask for anyone’s permission. The late Mr. Jobs said that “it allows Apple to remotely delete malicious or inappropriate applications stored on the device” . However, “malicious and inappropriate” is whatever Apple considers as such. It is worth keeping in mind that this is the same company which concluded that the Google Voice application does not belong in its App Store and which routinely bans other companies from its App Store which are in any way critical of Apple. How is that for democracy and tolerance? But coming back to the kill switch, the official rationale is that it is the last line of defence against malicious and inappropriate applications. The declared intent is clearly right and proper, not something which easily lends itself to criticism, but the implication behind it – that that is the only or best way to make these devices safe – is completely unfounded. If Apple was interested in protecting its users from malware, it could have let users have the final say with the kill switch. Instead of immediately and silently removing an app, the following dialogue would appear on the screen: “Apple considers application X to be a security threat: do you agree it should be removed? (yes/no)” But instead their implementation uses an unconditional, silent kill switch because (in my opinion) it gives them much more power over the devices and their users. If Apple was squeaky clean in all other respects (and by any stretch of the imagination, it is not), this alone would be reason enough not to buy their products and shove more money into its pockets.

The Apple App Store is probably the only software delivery platform which makes it impossible to deliver GPL-licenced software. While it may be a matter of discussion how well the GPL really embodies and encodes the concept of freedom when it comes to software, its pervasiveness is not: it is by far the most widely used and seminal free software licence. The App Store terms of use are incompatible with the GPL, so all Apple devices are off limits to what is commonly regarded as free software. That a company should deprive its customers from both existing free software and the free software that might have been written for the device (like mobile versions of WebKit-based browsers, VLC player, etc.) goes a long way in showing how little regard the company has for its users and the developers’ freedom to choose the licences they find most suitable for their purpose.

The contract developers were forced to accept if they wanted to publish software for the App Store also sets precedents. Apple is probably the only company in the world which formally forbids writing software which competes with its own offerings: everybody else can fight it out within the confines of their App Store, but Apple itself doesn’t need to worry about competition. What’s more, there is nothing to stop it from cloning someone else’s application, delivering their clone and then removing the competitor: their terms of use clearly state that they can revoke third-party software without having to justify the decision. As an aside, developers are not allowed to discuss the terms under which you may develop for the platform. That contract and other Apple policies create a whole new level of the concept of a walled garden: developers can’t say what they’ve signed, the can’t distribute apps outside of the App Store, can’t make sure the app will be published at all, can’t make sure apps will not be removed from the only allowed market, can’t sell goods within apps because Apple doesn’t get its cut, can’t write apps in a language Apple hasn’t approved (e.g. ActionScript)…

I could go on and on, but I will conclude instead. Everything about Apple is surrounded by a kind of haze of religious fervour of its fans and in that same spirit the quality and refinement of its products has always been touted as that what makes Apple special. It is my opinion that quality, while generally desirable, is all but irrelevant when packaged into the same package with technology that is neither trustworthy, secure, fair nor produced ethically. There is absolutely no reason to trust this company: it has been stifling innovation, suppressing dissent, spying and it is the antithesis of transparency (location tracking – secret, kill switch – secret, developer contract – secret). Extremely large scale covert location tracking by a private company, without a legitimate mandate, without anyone to check what it is doing with the data should ring every alarm in the heads of anyone who values democracy and freedom. A world where Apple’s products would be dominant would be neither safe nor sustainable. To even enter the market, companies would have to give up 30% of their income, there would be no one to stop Apple from raising that tax by e.g. 3% every year, its censors could suffocate entire software companies at a whim…

We have to realise that by buying things companies produce, we provide financial and ideological support for what these companies are doing. With a company which so blatantly brutally stomps all over the most basic values of what we call free societies, providing additional support is outright dangerous, all the more so because too few people are aware of it.

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