Germany’s Federal Cartel Office, or Bundeskartellamt, on Thursday banned Facebook from combining user data from its various platforms such as WhatsApp and Instagram without explicit user permission.
The decision, which comes as the result of a nearly three-year antitrust investigation into Facebook’s data gathering practices, also bans the social media company from gleaning user data from third-party sites unless they voluntarily consent.
“With regard to Facebook’s future data processing policy, we are carrying out what can be seen as an internal divestiture of Facebook’s data,” Bundeskartellamt President Andreas Mundt said in a release. “In [the] future, Facebook will no longer be allowed to force its users to agree to the practically unrestricted collection and assigning of non-Facebook data to their Facebook user accounts.”
Mundt noted that combining user data from various sources “substantially contributed to the fact that Facebook was able to build a unique database for each individual user and thus to gain market power.”
Experts agreed with the decision. “It is high time to regulate the internet giants effectively!” said Marc Al-Hames, general manager of German data protection technologies developer Cliqz GmbH. “Unregulated data capitalism inevitably creates unfair conditions.”
Al-Hames noted that apps like WhatsApp have become “indispensable for many young people,” who feel compelled to join if they want to be part of the social scene. “Social media create social pressure,” he said. “And Facebook exploits this mercilessly: Give me your data or you’re an outsider.”
He called the practice an abuse of dominant market position. “But that’s not all: Facebook monitors our activities regardless of whether we are a member of one of its networks or not. Even those who consciously renounce the social networks for the sake of privacy will still be spied out,” he said, adding that Cliqz and Ghostery stats show that “every fourth of our website visits are monitored by Facebook’s data collection technologies, so-called trackers.”
The Bundeskartellamt’s decision will prevent Facebook from collecting and using data without restriction. “Voluntary consent means that the use of Facebook’s services must [now] be subject to the users’ consent to their data being collected and combined in this way,” said Mundt. “If users do not consent, Facebook may not exclude them from its services and must refrain from collecting and merging data from different sources.”
The ban drew support and calls for it to be expanded to other companies.
“This latest move by Germany’s competition regulator is welcome,” said Morten Brøgger, CEO of secure collaboration platform Wire. “Compromising user privacy for profit is a risk no exec should be willing to take.”
Brøgger contends that Facebook has not fully understood digital privacy’s importance. “From emails suggesting cashing in on user data for money, to the infamous Cambridge Analytica scandal, the company is taking steps back in a world which is increasingly moving towards the protection of everyone’s data,” he said.
“The lesson here is that you cannot simply trust firms that rely on the exchange of data as its main offering, Brøgger added, “and firms using Facebook-owned applications should have a rethink about the platforms they use to do business.”
Al-Hames said regulators shouldn’t stop with Facebook, which he called the number-two offender. “By far the most important data monopolist is Alphabet. With Google search, the Android operating system, the Play Store app sales platform and the Chrome browser, the internet giant collects data on virtually everyone in the Western world,” Al-Hames said. “And even those who want to get free by using alternative services stay trapped in Alphabet’s clutches: With a tracker reach of nearly 80 percent of all page loads Alphabet probably knows more about them than their closest friends or relatives. When it comes to our data, the top priority of the market regulators shouldn’t be Facebook, it should be Alphabet!”
The millions of dots on the map trace highways, side streets and bike trails — each one following the path of an anonymous cellphone user.
One path tracks someone from a home outside Newark to a nearby Planned Parenthood, remaining there for more than an hour. Another represents a person who travels with the mayor of New York during the day and returns to Long Island at night.
Yet another leaves a house in upstate New York at 7 a.m. and travels to a middle school 14 miles away, staying until late afternoon each school day. Only one person makes that trip: Lisa Magrin, a 46-year-old math teacher. Her smartphone goes with her.
An app on the device gathered her location information, which was then sold without her knowledge. It recorded her whereabouts as often as every two seconds, according to a database of more than a million phones in the New York area that was reviewed by The New York Times. While Ms. Magrin’s identity was not disclosed in those records, The Times was able to easily connect her to that dot.
The app tracked her as she went to a Weight Watchers meeting and to her dermatologist’s office for a minor procedure. It followed her hiking with her dog and staying at her ex-boyfriend’s home, information she found disturbing.
“It’s the thought of people finding out those intimate details that you don’t want people to know,” said Ms. Magrin, who allowed The Times to review her location data.
Like many consumers, Ms. Magrin knew that apps could track people’s movements. But as smartphones have become ubiquitous and technology more accurate, an industry of snooping on people’s daily habits has spread and grown more intrusive.
At least 75 companies receive anonymous, precise location data from apps whose users enable location services to get local news and weather or other information, The Times found. Several of those businesses claim to track up to 200 million mobile devices in the United States — about half those in use last year. The database reviewed by The Times — a sample of information gathered in 2017 and held by one company — reveals people’s travels in startling detail, accurate to within a few yards and in some cases updated more than 14,000 times a day.
These companies sell, use or analyze the data to cater to advertisers, retail outlets and even hedge funds seeking insights into consumer behavior. It’s a hot market, with sales of location-targeted advertising reaching an estimated $21 billion this year. IBM has gotten into the industry, with its purchase of the Weather Channel’s apps. The social network Foursquare remade itself as a location marketing company. Prominent investors in location start-ups include Goldman Sachs and Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder.
Businesses say their interest is in the patterns, not the identities, that the data reveals about consumers. They note that the information apps collect is tied not to someone’s name or phone number but to a unique ID. But those with access to the raw data — including employees or clients — could still identify a person without consent. They could follow someone they knew, by pinpointing a phone that regularly spent time at that person’s home address. Or, working in reverse, they could attach a name to an anonymous dot, by seeing where the device spent nights and using public records to figure out who lived there.
“Location information can reveal some of the most intimate details of a person’s life — whether you’ve visited a psychiatrist, whether you went to an A.A. meeting, who you might date,” said Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, who has proposed bills to limit the collection and sale of such data, which are largely unregulated in the United States.
“It’s not right to have consumers kept in the dark about how their data is sold and shared and then leave them unable to do anything about it,” he added.
Mobile Surveillance Devices
After Elise Lee, a nurse in Manhattan, saw that her device had been tracked to the main operating room at the hospital where she works, she expressed concern about her privacy and that of her patients.
“It’s very scary,” said Ms. Lee, who allowed The Times to examine her location history in the data set it reviewed. “It feels like someone is following me, personally.”
The mobile location industry began as a way to customize apps and target ads for nearby businesses, but it has morphed into a data collection and analysis machine.
Retailers look to tracking companies to tell them about their own customers and their competitors’. For a web seminar last year, Elina Greenstein, an executive at the location company GroundTruth, mapped out the path of a hypothetical consumer from home to work to show potential clients how tracking could reveal a person’s preferences. For example, someone may search online for healthy recipes, but GroundTruth can see that the person often eats at fast-food restaurants.
“We look to understand who a person is, based on where they’ve been and where they’re going, in order to influence what they’re going to do next,” Ms. Greenstein said.
Financial firms can use the information to make investment decisions before a company reports earnings — seeing, for example, if more people are working on a factory floor, or going to a retailer’s stores.
Health care facilities are among the more enticing but troubling areas for tracking, as Ms. Lee’s reaction demonstrated. Tell All Digital, a Long Island advertising firm that is a client of a location company, says it runs ad campaigns for personal injury lawyers targeting people anonymously in emergency rooms.
“The book ‘1984,’ we’re kind of living it in a lot of ways,” said Bill Kakis, a managing partner at Tell All.
Jails, schools, a military base and a nuclear power plant — even crime scenes — appeared in the data set The Times reviewed. One person, perhaps a detective, arrived at the site of a late-night homicide in Manhattan, then spent time at a nearby hospital, returning repeatedly to the local police station.
Two location firms, Fysical and SafeGraph, mapped people attending the 2017 presidential inauguration. On Fysical’s map, a bright red box near the Capitol steps indicated the general location of President Trump and those around him, cellphones pinging away. Fysical’s chief executive said in an email that the data it used was anonymous. SafeGraph did not respond to requests for comment.
More than 1,000 popular apps contain location-sharing code from such companies, according to 2018 data from MightySignal, a mobile analysis firm. Google’s Android system was found to have about 1,200 apps with such code, compared with about 200 on Apple’s iOS.
The most prolific company was Reveal Mobile, based in North Carolina, which had location-gathering code in more than 500 apps, including many that provide local news. A Reveal spokesman said that the popularity of its code showed that it helped app developers make ad money and consumers get free services.
To evaluate location-sharing practices, The Times tested 20 apps, most of which had been flagged by researchers and industry insiders as potentially sharing the data. Together, 17 of the apps sent exact latitude and longitude to about 70 businesses. Precise location data from one app, WeatherBug on iOS, was received by 40 companies. When contacted by The Times, some of the companies that received that data described it as “unsolicited” or “inappropriate.”
WeatherBug, owned by GroundTruth, asks users’ permission to collect their location and tells them the information will be used to personalize ads. GroundTruth said that it typically sent the data to ad companies it worked with, but that if they didn’t want the information they could ask to stop receiving it.
The Times also identified more than 25 other companies that have said in marketing materials or interviews that they sell location data or services, including targeted advertising.
The spread of this information raises questions about how securely it is handled and whether it is vulnerable to hacking, said Serge Egelman, a computer security and privacy researcher affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley.
“There are really no consequences” for companies that don’t protect the data, he said, “other than bad press that gets forgotten about.”
A Question of Awareness
Companies that use location data say that people agree to share their information in exchange for customized services, rewards and discounts. Ms. Magrin, the teacher, noted that she liked that tracking technology let her record her jogging routes.
Brian Wong, chief executive of Kiip, a mobile ad firm that has also sold anonymous data from some of the apps it works with, says users give apps permission to use and share their data. “You are receiving these services for free because advertisers are helping monetize and pay for it,” he said, adding, “You would have to be pretty oblivious if you are not aware that this is going on.”
But Ms. Lee, the nurse, had a different view. “I guess that’s what they have to tell themselves,” she said of the companies. “But come on.”
Ms. Lee had given apps on her iPhone access to her location only for certain purposes — helping her find parking spaces, sending her weather alerts — and only if they did not indicate that the information would be used for anything else, she said. Ms. Magrin had allowed about a dozen apps on her Android phone access to her whereabouts for services like traffic notifications.
But it is easy to share information without realizing it. Of the 17 apps that The Times saw sending precise location data, just three on iOS and one on Android told users in a prompt during the permission process that the information could be used for advertising. Only one app, GasBuddy, which identifies nearby gas stations, indicated that data could also be shared to “analyze industry trends.”
More typical was theScore, a sports app: When prompting users to grant access to their location, it said the data would help “recommend local teams and players that are relevant to you.” The app passed precise coordinates to 16 advertising and location companies.
Even industry insiders acknowledge that many people either don’t read those policies or may not fully understand their opaque language. Policies for apps that funnel location information to help investment firms, for instance, have said the data is used for market analysis, or simply shared for business purposes.
“Most people don’t know what’s going on,” said Emmett Kilduff, the chief executive of Eagle Alpha, which sells data to financial firms and hedge funds. Mr. Kilduff said responsibility for complying with data-gathering regulations fell to the companies that collected it from people.
Many location companies say they voluntarily take steps to protect users’ privacy, but policies vary widely.
For example, Sense360, which focuses on the restaurant industry, says it scrambles data within a 1,000-foot square around the device’s approximate home location. Another company, Factual, says that it collects data from consumers at home, but that its database doesn’t contain their addresses.
Some companies say they delete the location data after using it to serve ads, some use it for ads and pass it along to data aggregation companies, and others keep the information for years.
Several people in the location business said that it would be relatively simple to figure out individual identities in this kind of data, but that they didn’t do it. Others suggested it would require so much effort that hackers wouldn’t bother.
It “would take an enormous amount of resources,” said Bill Daddi, a spokesman for Cuebiq, which analyzes anonymous location data to help retailers and others, and raised more than $27 million this year from investors including Goldman Sachs and Nasdaq Ventures. Nevertheless, Cuebiq encrypts its information, logs employee queries and sells aggregated analysis, he said.
There is no federal law limiting the collection or use of such data. Still, apps that ask for access to users’ locations, prompting them for permission while leaving out important details about how the data will be used, may run afoul of federal rules on deceptive business practices, said Maneesha Mithal, a privacy official at the Federal Trade Commission.
Following the Money
Apps form the backbone of this new location data economy.
The app developers can make money by directly selling their data, or by sharing it for location-based ads, which command a premium. Location data companies pay half a cent to two cents per user per month, according to offer letters to app makers reviewed by The Times.
Targeted advertising is by far the most common use of the information.
Google and Facebook, which dominate the mobile ad market, also lead in location-based advertising. Both companies collect the data from their own apps. They say they don’t sell it but keep it for themselves to personalize their services, sell targeted ads across the internet and track whether the ads lead to sales at brick-and-mortar stores. Google, which also receives precise location information from apps that use its ad services, said it modified that data to make it less exact.
Smaller companies compete for the rest of the market, including by selling data and analysis to financial institutions. This segment of the industry is small but growing, expected to reach about $250 million a year by 2020, according to the market research firm Opimas.
Apple and Google have a financial interest in keeping developers happy, but both have taken steps to limit location data collection. In the most recent version of Android, apps that are not in use can collect locations “a few times an hour,” instead of continuously.
Apple has been stricter, for example requiring apps to justify collecting location details in pop-up messages. But Apple’s instructions for writing these pop-ups do not mention advertising or data sale, only features like getting “estimated travel times.”
A spokesman said the company mandates that developers use the data only to provide a service directly relevant to the app, or to serve advertising that met Apple’s guidelines.
Apple recently shelved plans that industry insiders say would have significantly curtailed location collection. Last year, the company said an upcoming version of iOS would show a blue bar onscreen whenever an app not in use was gaining access to location data.
The discussion served as a “warning shot” to people in the location industry, David Shim, chief executive of the location company Placed, said at an industry event last year.
After examining maps showing the locations extracted by their apps, Ms. Lee, the nurse, and Ms. Magrin, the teacher, immediately limited what data those apps could get. Ms. Lee said she told the other operating-room nurses to do the same.
“I went through all their phones and just told them: ‘You have to turn this off. You have to delete this,’” Ms. Lee said. “Nobody knew.”
In the data set reviewed by The Times, phone locations are recorded in sensitive areas including the Indian Point nuclear plant near New York City. By Michael H. Keller | Satellite imagery by Mapbox and DigitalGlobe
It’s not just Facebook: Android and iOS’s App Stores have incentivized an app economy where free apps make money by selling your personal data and location history to advertisers.
Monday morning, the New York Times published a horrifying investigation in which the publication reviewed a huge, “anonymized” dataset of smartphone location data from a third-party vendor, de-anonymized it, and tracked ordinary people through their day-to-day lives—including sensitive stops at places like Planned Parenthood, their homes, and their offices.
The article lays bare what the privacy-conscious have suspected for years: The apps on your smartphone are tracking you, and that for all the talk about “anonymization” and claims that the data is collected only in aggregate, our habits are so specific—and often unique—so that anonymized identifiers can often be reverse engineered and used to track individual people.
Along with the investigation, the New York Timespublished a guide to managing and restricting location data on specific apps. This is easier on iOS than it is Android, and is something everyone should be periodically doing. But the main takeaway, I think, is not just that we need to be more scrupulous about our location data settings. It’s that we need to be much, much more restrictive about the apps that we install on our phones.
Everywhere we go, we are carrying a device that not only has a GPS chip designed to track our location, but an internet or LTE connection designed to transmit that information to third parties, many of whom have monetized that data. Rough location data can be gleaned by tracking the cell phone towers your phone connects to, and the best way to guarantee privacy would be to have a dumb phone, an iPod Touch, or no phone at all. But for most people, that’s not terribly practical, and so I think it’s worth taking a look at the types of apps that we have installed on our phone, and their value propositions—both to us, and to their developers.
A good question to ask yourself when evaluating your apps is “why does this app exist?”
The early design decisions of Apple, Google, and app developers continue to haunt us all more than a decade later. Broadly and historically speaking, we have been willing to spend hundreds of dollars on a smartphone, but balk at the idea of spending $.99 on an app. Our reluctance to pay any money up front for apps has come at an unknowable but massive cost to our privacy. Even a lowly flashlight or fart noise app is not free to make, and the overwhelming majority of “free” apps are not altruistic—they are designed to make money, which usually means by harvesting and reselling your data.
A good question to ask yourself when evaluating your apps is “why does this app exist?” If it exists because it costs money to buy, or because it’s the free app extension of a service that costs money, then it is more likely to be able to sustain itself without harvesting and selling your data. If it’s a free app that exists for the sole purpose of amassing a large amount of users, then chances are it has been monetized by selling data to advertisers.
The New York Times noted that much of the data used in its investigation came from free weather and sports scores apps that turned around and sold their users’ data; hundreds of free games, flashlight apps, and podcast apps ask for permissions they don’t actually need for the express purpose of monetizing your data.
Even apps that aren’t blatantly sketchy data grabs often function that way: Facebook and its suite of apps (Instagram, Messenger, etc) collect loads of data about you both from your behavior on the app itself but also directly from your phone (Facebook went to great lengths to hide the fact that its Android app was collecting call log data.) And Android itself is a smartphone ecosystem that also serves as yet another data collection apparatus for Google. Unless you feel particularly inclined to read privacy policies that are dozens of pages long for every app you download, who knows what information bespoke apps for news, podcasts, airlines, ticket buying, travel, and social media are collecting and selling.
This problem is getting worse, not better: Facebook made WhatsApp, an app that managed to be profitable with a $1 per year subscription fee, into a “free” service because it believed it could make more money with an advertising-based business model.
What this means is that the dominant business model on our smartphones is one that’s predicated on monetizing you, and only through paying obsessive attention to your app permissions and seeking paid alternatives can you hope to minimize these impacts on yourself. If this bothers you, your only options are to get rid of your smartphone altogether or to rethink what apps you want installed on your phone and act accordingly.
It might be time to get rid of all the free single-use apps that are essentially re-sized websites. Generally speaking, it is safer, privacywise, to access your data on a browser, even if it’s more inconvenient. On second thought, it may be time to delete all your apps and start over using only apps that respect your privacy and that have sustainable business models that don’t rely on monetizing your data. On iOS, this might mean using more of Apple’s first party apps, even if they don’t work as well as free third-party versions.
It’s onto me, anyway. I am merely one anecdata point among billions, but I’m sure I’m not the only Facebook user who has found herself shying away from the very public, often performative, and even tiring habit of posting regular updates to Facebook and Instagram. Over the past year I’ve found myself thinking not about quitting social networks, but about redefining them. For me, that process has involved a lot more private messaging.
Facebook, it seems, has noticed. Last week, The New York Times reported that Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg plans to unify Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram messaging on the backend of the services. This would make it possible for people relying on different flavors of Facebook apps to all gorge at the same messaging table. On the one hand, the move is truly Facebookian—just try to extricate yourself from Facebook, and it will try every which way to pull you back in. On the other hand, it makes sense for Facebook for a few reasons.
My personal relationship with Facebook is multi-faceted. I have a personal account and a journalist’s page. I also use Instagram and WhatsApp. But last year, I let my professional page languish. I stopped posting to my personal feed as frequently. Instead I turned to private messaging.
During a trip to Europe last fall, I shared everything I felt compelled to share with a small group of people on Apple Messages. The excursion to see one of the largest waves ever surfed by a human? I shared the photo in a private Slack message with coworkers, instead of posting on Facebook. Wedding photos no longer go up on Instagram. During the holidays, I happily embrace my role as halfway-decent photographer, but when I share the photos with friends and family, it’s only through Messages, WhatsApp, or private photo albums.
These tools have become my preferred method of communicating. It’s not some big revelation, or even anything that’s new; peer-to-peer messaging, or at least the guise of “private” messaging, is as old as the consumer internet itself. When our worlds expand in a way that feels unmanageable, our instinct is sometimes to shrink them until we’re comfortable again, for better or worse. Remember Path, the social network limited to just your closest circle? That didn’t work out, but the entire app was built upon the Dunbar theory that our species can’t handle more than 150 close friends. There just might have been something to that.
“I think a lot of people experience this,” says Margaret Morris, a clinical psychologist and author of Left to Our Own Devices. “When you post something in such a public way, the question is: What are the motivations? But when it’s in a private thread, it’s: Why am I sharing this? Oh, it’s because I think you’ll like this. I think we’ll connect over this. The altruistic motivations can be far more clear in private messaging.”
Of course, “altruism” in this case only applies to the friends exchanging messages and not the messaging service providers. Facebook’s efforts to unify its messaging platforms are at least partly rooted in a desire to monetize our activity, whether that’s by keeping us engaged in an outward-facing News Feed or within a little chat box. And there’s a major distinction between so-called private messages and what Morris calls “Privacy with a capital P.”
“There’s one kind of privacy, which is: what does my cousin know, or what does my co-worker know,” Morris says, “And then there’s the kind of privacy that’s about the data Facebook has.” Facebook’s plan is reportedly to offer end-to-end encryption on all of its messaging apps once the backend systems have been merged. As my WIRED colleague Lily Newman writes, cryptographers and privacy advocates already see obvious hurdles in making this work.
That’s why I often use Apple’s Messages and even iCloud photo sharing. There’s an explicit agreement that exists between the service provider and user: Buy our ridiculously expensive hardware, and we won’t sell your data. (While iCloud has been hacked before, Apple swears by the end-to-end encryption between iPhone users and says it doesn’t share Messages data with third-party apps). But just using Messages isn’t realistic, either. The platform is only functional between two iPhones. Not everyone can afford Apple products, and in other parts of the world, such as China or India, apps like WeChat and WhatsApp dominate private messaging. That means you’re going to end up using other apps if you plan to communicate outside of a bubble of iPhone lovers.
But beyond privacy with a capital P—which is, for many people, the most important consideration when it comes to social media—there’s the psychology of privacy when it comes to sharing updates about our personal lives, and connecting with other humans. Social networks have made human connections infinitely more possible and also turned the whole notion upside down on its head.
Morris, for example, sees posting something publicly to a Facebook feed as a yearning for interconnectedness, while a private messaging thread is a quest for what she calls attunement, a way to strengthen a bond between two people. But, she notes, some people take a screenshot from a private message and then, having failed in their quest for attunement, publish an identity-stripped version of it to their feed. Guilty as charged. Social networking is no longer just a feed or an app or a chat box or SMS, but some amalgamation of it all.
Posting private messages publicly is not something I plan to make a habit of, but there is still the urge sometimes to share. I’m still on Twitter. I’ll likely still post to Facebook and Instagram from time to time. At some point I may be looking for a sense of community that exists beyond my own small private messaging groups, for a tantalizing blend of familiarity and anonymity in a Facebook group of like-minded hobbyists. For some people, larger social networking communities are lifelines as they struggle with health, with family, with job worries, with life.
But right now, “private” messages are the way to share my life with the people who matter most, an attempt to splinter off my social interactions into something more satisfying—especially when posting to Facebook has never seemed less appealing.
Apple on Wednesday warned investors that its revenue for the last three months of 2018 would not live up to previous estimates, or even come particularly close. The main culprit appears to be China, where the trade war and a broader economic slowdown contributed to plummeting iPhone sales. But CEO Tim Cook’s letter to investors pointed to a secondary thread as well, one that Apple customers, environmentalists, and even the company itself should view not as a liability but an asset: People are holding onto their iPhones longer.
That’s not just in China. Cook noted that iPhone upgrades were “not as strong as we thought they would be” in developed markets as well, citing “macroeconomic conditions,” a shift in how carriers price smartphones, a strong US dollar, and temporarily discounted battery replacements. He neglected to mention the simple fact that an iPhone can perform capably for years—and consumers are finally getting wise.
As recently as 2015, smartphone users on average upgraded their phone roughly every 24 months, says Cliff Maldonado, founder of BayStreet Research, which tracks the mobile industry. As of the fourth quarter of last year, that had jumped to at least 35 months. “You’re looking at people holding onto their devices an extra year,” Maldonado says. “It’s been considerable.”
A few factors contribute to the trend, chief among them the shift from buying phones on a two-year contract—heavily subsidized by the carriers—to installment plans in which the customer pays full freight. T-Mobile introduced the practice in the US in 2014, and by 2015 it had become the norm. The full effects, though, have only kicked in more recently. People still generally pay for their smartphone over two years; once they’re paid off, though, their monthly bill suddenly drops by, say, $25.
The shift has also caused a sharp drop-off in carrier incentives. They turn out not to be worth it. “They’re actually encouraging that dynamic of holding your smartphone longer. It’s in their best interest,” Maldonado says. “It actually costs them to get you into a new phone, to do those promotions, to run the transaction and put it on their books and finance it.”
Bottom line: If your service is reliable and your iPhone still works fine, why go through the hassle?
“There’s not as many subsidies as there used to be from a carrier point of view,” Cook told CNBC Wednesday. “And where that didn’t all happen yesterday, if you’ve been out of the market for two or three years and you come back, it looks like that to you.”
Meanwhile, older iPhones work better, for longer, thanks to Apple itself. When Apple vice president Craig Federighi introduced iOS 12 in June at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, he emphasized how much it improved the performance of older devices. Among the numbers he cited: The 2014 iPhone 6 Plus opens apps 40 percent faster with iOS 12 than it had with iOS 11, and its keyboard appears up to 50 percent faster than before. And while Apple’s battery scandal of a year ago was a black mark for the company, it at least reminded Apple owners that they didn’t necessarily need a new iPhone. Eligible iPhone owners found that a $29 battery replacement—it normally costs $79—made their iPhone 6 feel something close to new.
“There definitely has been a major shift in customer perception, after all the controversy,” says Kyle Wiens, founder of online repair community iFixit. “What it really did more than anything else was remind you that the battery on your phone really can be replaced. Apple successfully brainwashing the public into thinking the battery was something they never needed to think about led people to prematurely buy these devices.”
Combine all of that with the fact that new model iPhones—and Android phones for that matter—have lacked a killer feature, much less one that would inspire someone to spend $1,000 or more if they didn’t absolutely have to. “Phones used to be toys, and shiny objects,” Maldonado says. “Now they’re utilities. You’ve got to have it, and the joy of getting a new one is pretty minor. Facebook and email looks the same; the camera’s still great.”
In the near term, these dynamics aren’t ideal for Apple; its stock dropped more than 7 percent in after-hours trading following Wednesday’s news. But it’s terrific news for consumers, who have apparently realized that a smartphone does not have a two-year expiration date. That saves money in the long run. And pulling the throttle back on iPhone sales may turn out to be equally welcome news for the planet.
According to Apple’s most recent sustainability report, the manufacture of each Apple device generates on average 90 pounds of carbon emissions. Wiens suggests that the creation of each iPhone requires hundreds of pounds of raw materials.
Manufacturing electronics is environmentally intense, Wiens says. “We can’t live in a world where we’re making 3 billion new smartphones a year. We don’t have the resources for it. We have to reduce how many overall devices we’re making. There are lots of ways to do it, but it gets down to demand, and how many we’re buying. That’s not what Apple wants, but it’s what the environment needs.”
Which raises a question: Why does Apple bother extending the lives of older iPhones? The altruistic answer comes from Lisa Jackson, who oversees the company’s environmental efforts.
“We also make sure to design and build durable products that last as long as possible,” Jackson said at Apple’s September hardware event. “Because they last longer, you can keep using them. And keeping using them is the best thing for the planet.”
Given a long enough horizon, Apple may see a financial benefit from less frequent upgrades as well. An iPhone that lasts longer keeps customers in the iOS ecosystem longer. That becomes even more important as the company places greater emphasis not on hardware but on services like Apple Music. It also offers an important point of differentiation from Android, whose fragmented ecosystem means even flagship devices rarely continue to be fully supported beyond two years.
“In reality, the big picture is still very good for Apple,” Maldonado says. Compared with Android, “Apple’s in a better spot, because the phones last longer.”
That’s cold comfort today and doesn’t help a whit with China. But news that people are holding onto their iPhones longer should be taken for what it really is: A sign of progress and a win for everyone. Even Apple.
Companies around the world are scrambling to get their business and its practices into compliance – a significant task for many of them. While technically, the deadline to get everything in order passed on May 25, for many companies the process will continue well into June and possibly beyond. Some companies are even shutting down in Europe for good, or for as long as it takes them to get in compliance.
Even with the deadline behind us, the GDPR continues to be a top story for the tech world and may remain so for some time to come.
2. Amazon Provides Facial Recognition Tech to Law Enforcement
Civil rights groups have called for the company to stop allowing law enforcement access to the tech out of concerns that increased government surveillance can pose a threat to vulnerable communities in the country. In spite of the public criticism, Amazon hasn’t backed off on providing the tech to authorities, at least as of this time.
3. Apple Looks Into Self-Driving Employee Shuttles
Of the many problems facing our world, the frustrating work commute is one that many of the brightest minds in tech deal with just like the rest of us. Which makes it a problem the biggest tech companies have a strong incentive to try to solve.
Apple is one of many companies that’s invested in developing self-driving cars as a possible solution, but while that goal is still (probably) years away, they’ve narrowed their focus to teaming up with VW to create self-driving shuttles just for their employees. Even that project is moving slower than the company had hoped, but they’re aiming to have some shuttles ready by the end of the year.
4. Court Weighs in on President’s Tendency to Block Critics on Twitter
Three years ago no one would have imagined that Twitter would be a president’s go-to source for making announcements, but today it’s used to that effect more frequently than official press conferences or briefings.
In a court battle that may sound surreal to many of us, a judge just found that the president can no longer legally block other users on Twitter. The court asserted that blocking users on a public forum like Twitter amounts to a violation of their First Amendment rights. The judgment does still allow for the president and other public officials to mute users they don’t agree with, though.
5. YouTube Launches Music Streaming Service
YouTube joined the ranks of Spotify, Pandora, and Amazon this past month with their own streaming music service. Consumers can use a free version of the service that includes ads, or can pay $9.99 for the ad-free version.
With so many similar services already on the market, people weren’t exactly clamoring for another music streaming option. But since YouTube is likely to remain the reigning source for videos, it doesn’t necessarily need to unseat Spotify to still be okay. And with access to Google’s extensive user data, it may be able to provide more useful recommendations than its main competitors in the space, which is one way the service could differentiate itself.
6. Facebook Institutes Political Ad Rules
Facebook hasn’t yet left behind the controversies of the last election. The company is still working to proactively respond to criticism of its role in the spread of political propaganda many believe influenced election results. One of the solutions they’re trying is a new set of rules for any political ads run on the platform.
Any campaign that intends to run Facebook ads is now required to verify their identity with a card Facebook mails to their address that has a verification code. While Facebook has been promoting these new rules for a few weeks to politicians active on the platform, some felt blindsided when they realized, right before their primaries no less, that they could no longer place ads without waiting 12 to 15 days for a verification code to come in the mail. Politicians in this position blame the company for making a change that could affect their chances in the upcoming election.
Even in their efforts to avoid swaying elections, Facebook has found themselves criticized for doing just that. They’re probably feeling at this point like they just can’t win.
7. Another Big Month for Tech IPOs
This year has seen one tech IPO after another and this month is no different. Chinese smartphone company Xiaomi has a particularly large IPO in the works. The company seeks to join the Hong Kong stock exchange on June 7 with an initial public offering that experts anticipate could reach $10 billion.
The online lending platform Greensky started trading on the New York Stock Exchange on May 23 and sold 38 million shares in its first day, 4 million more than expected. This month continues 2018’s trend of tech companies going public, largely to great success.
8. StumbleUpon Shuts Down
In the internet’s ongoing evolution, there will always be tech companies that win and those that fall by the wayside. StumbleUpon, a content discovery platform that had its heyday in the early aughts, is officially shutting down on June 30.
Since its 2002 launch, the service has helped over 40 million users “stumble upon” 60 billion new websites and pieces of content. The company behind StumbleUpon plans to create a new platform that serves a similar purpose that may be more useful to former StumbleUpon users called Mix.
9. Uber and Lyft Invest in Driver Benefits
In spite of their ongoing success, the popular ridesharing platforms Uber and Lyft have faced their share of criticism since they came onto the scene. One of the common complaints critics have made is that the companies don’t provide proper benefits to their drivers. And in fact, the companies have fought to keep drivers classified legally as contractors so they’re off the hook for covering the cost of employee taxes and benefits.
Recently both companies have taken steps to make driving for them a little more attractive. Uber has begun offering Partner Protection to its drivers in Europe, which includes health insurance, sick pay, and parental leave – so far nothing similar in the U.S. though. For its part, Lyft is investing $100 million in building driver support centers where their drivers can stop to get discounted car maintenance, tax help, and customer support help in person from Lyft staff. It’s not the same as getting full employee benefits (in the U.S. at least), but it’s something.
Cambridge Analytica may have usedFacebook’s data to influence your political opinions. But why does least-liked tech company Facebook have all this data about its users in the first place?
Let’s put aside Instagram, WhatsApp and other Facebook products for a minute. Facebook has built the world’s biggest social network. But that’s not what they sell. You’ve probably heard the internet saying “if a product is free, it means that you are the product.”
And it’s particularly true in this case because Facebook is the world’s second biggest advertising company in the world behind Google. During the last quarter of 2017, Facebook reported $12.97 billion in revenue, including $12.78 billion from ads.
That’s 98.5 percent of Facebook’s revenue coming from ads.
Ads aren’t necessarily a bad thing. But Facebook has reached ad saturation in the newsfeed. So the company has two options — creating new products and ad formats, or optimizing those sponsored posts.
Facebook has reached ad saturation in the newsfeed
This isn’t a zero-sum game — Facebook has been doing both at the same time. That’s why you’re seeing more ads on Instagram and Messenger. And that’s also why ads on Facebook seem more relevant than ever.
If Facebook can show you relevant ads and you end up clicking more often on those ads, then advertisers will pay Facebook more money.
So Facebook has been collecting as much personal data about you as possible — it’s all about showing you the best ad. The company knows your interests, what you buy, where you go and who you’re sleeping with.
You can’t hide from Facebook
Facebook’s terms and conditions are a giant lie. They are purposely misleading, too long and too broad. So you can’t just read the company’s terms of service and understand what it knows about you.
That’s why some people have been downloading their Facebook data. You can do it too, it’s quite easy. Just head over to your Facebook settings and click the tiny link that says “Download a copy of your Facebook data.”
In that archive file, you’ll find your photos, your posts, your events, etc. But if you keep digging, you’ll also find your private messages on Messenger (by default, nothing is encrypted).
And if you keep digging a bit more, chances are you’ll also find your entire address book and even metadata about your SMS messages and phone calls.
All of this is by design and you agreed to it. Facebook has unified terms of service and share user data across all its apps and services (except WhatsApp data in Europe for now). So if you follow a clothing brand on Instagram, you could see an ad from this brand on Facebook.com.
Messaging apps are privacy traps
But Facebook has also been using this trick quite a lot with Messenger. You might not remember, but the on-boarding experience on Messenger is really aggressive.
On iOS, the app shows you a fake permission popup to access your address book that says “Ok” or “Learn More”. The company is using a fake popup because you can’t ask for permission twice.
There’s a blinking arrow below the OK button.
If you click on “Learn More”, you get a giant blue button that says “Turn On”. Everything about this screen is misleading and Messenger tries to manipulate your emotions.
“Messenger only works when you have people to talk to,” it says. Nobody wants to be lonely, that’s why Facebook implies that turning on this option will give you friends.
Even worse, it says “if you skip this step, you’ll need to add each contact one-by-one to message them.” This is simply a lie as you can automatically talk to your Facebook friends using Messenger without adding them one-by-one.
The next time you pay for a burrito with your credit card, Facebook will learn about this transaction and match this credit card number with the one you added in Messenger
If you tap on “Not Now”, Messenger will show you a fake notification every now and then to push you to enable contact syncing. If you tap on yes and disable it later, Facebook still keeps all your contacts on its servers.
On Android, you can let Messenger manage your SMS messages. Of course, you guessed it, Facebook uploads all your metadata. Facebook knows who you’re texting, when, how often.
Even if you disable it later, Facebook will keep this data for later reference.
But my favorite thing is probably peer-to-peer payments. In some countries, you can pay back your friends using Messenger. It’s free! You just have to add your card to the app.
It turns out that Facebook also buys data about your offline purchases. The next time you pay for a burrito with your credit card, Facebook will learn about this transaction and match this credit card number with the one you added in Messenger.
In other words, Messenger is a great Trojan horse designed to learn everything about you.
And the next time an app asks you to share your address book, there’s a 99-percent chance that this app is going to mine your address book to get new users, spam your friends, improve ad targeting and sell email addresses to marketing companies.
I could say the same thing about all the other permission popups on your phone. Be careful when you install an app from the Play Store or open an app for the first time on iOS. It’s easier to enable something if a feature doesn’t work without it than to find out that Facebook knows everything about you.
GDPR to the rescue
There’s one last hope. And that hope is GDPR. I encourage you to read TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas excellent explanation of GDPR to understand what the European regulation is all about.
Many of the misleading things that are currently happening at Facebook will have to change. You can’t force people to opt in like in Messenger. Data collection should be minimized to essential features. And Facebook will have to explain why it needs all this data to its users.
If Facebook doesn’t comply, the company will have to pay up to 4 percent of its global annual turnover. But that doesn’t stop you from actively reclaiming your online privacy right now.
You can’t be invisible on the internet, but you have to be conscious about what’s happening behind your back. Every time a company asks you to tap OK, think about what’s behind this popup. You can’t say that nobody told you.