‘It May Seem Silly’

Jon Evans, in a piece for AOL/TechCrunch headlined “Don’t Be Apple”:

There is so much to admire about Apple. They make superb, beautiful products. Their amazing comeback story is unparalleled in corporate history. […] So why do I think they represent so much of what’s wrong with the tech world? It’s because they have, I think, an almost Shakespearean tragic flaw: their obsession with centralized corporate control of the devices they sell. […]

What could go wrong? Well, let’s get dystopically speculative for a moment. Can you remember some of the most hyperbolic overreactions to the fall of the World Trade Center, and how they were welcomed by large swathes of the American public? Can you imagine a future in which, following a similar tragedy, Apple rolls over and becomes a de facto arm of surveillance states? I sure can — and Apple’s centralized-command-and-control ecosystem would make it worryingly easy to turn every iOS device into an eye and ear of the panopticon, more or less overnight.

At which point we’d be forced to continue using these spyware Apple products because… ? And engineers at Apple would continue working for the company rather than resigning en masse because… ? And Apple would suffer no bad publicity for its cowardice because… ? Because: Tim Cook could surely flip a switch that would enable this surveillance without anyone noticing.

This advice is madness. Evans is recommending against using a platform that is secure and private today, from a company with a consistent decades-long track record in this regard, because in the future they might turn coat and become an accomplice of government mass surveillance, even though, if that came to pass, we could and would all just abandon the use of Apple products.

You can aim similar criticisms at Android, too, but they would miss the mark. Love it or hate it, Android is not near [sic] as centralized as iOS, and Google is not nearly as controlling as Apple. It’s open-source, and major organizations can — and do — fork it to create their own independent versions.

Parts of Android are indeed open source — “except for all the good parts”.

Apple fights an ongoing war with iOS jailbreakers, claiming that their work is “potentially catastrophic”; Google makes it especially easy to root Nexus devices. […]

Glenn Fleishman, writing for Macworld last month, “Hacking Team Hack Reveals Why You Shouldn’t Jailbreak Your iPhone”:

A massive breach in the private data of a firm that sells software to governments to spy on communications shows that jailbroken iPhones are vulnerable. […]

Two security outfits — the commercial Kaspersky Lab in Russia and academic Citizen Lab in Canada — first revealed in June 2014 that they had discovered and decoded Hacking Team’s smartphone-cracking software. The reports at that time indicated that only jailbroken iOS devices could be hijacked, but that malware could be installed on an iOS device when connected to a computer that was confirmed as trusted, and which had been compromised.

That external analysis has now been complemented by the Hacking Team’s internal documents. One price list shows a €50,000 ($56,000) price tag on an iOS snooping module with the note, “Prerequisite: the iOS device must be jailbroken.”

Apple works to close jailbreaking exploits because they are potentially catastrophic.

Back to Evans:

It may seem silly to criticize a fantastic company that makes superb products and delights its users on the basis of an abstract philosophical dispute.

Even the most jacktastic article usually has one true sentence.

But I have a sneaking suspicion that over the next year this dispute will grow more and more concrete. Maybe, as this contrast heightens, Apple will see the light; maybe instead of fighting jailbreakers, they will offer jailbreaking and sideloading as an option for power users out of the box, just as Android does. That alone would be a huge seismic shift.

But I’m not holding my breath. And until and unless that happens, I find it hard to recommend the iOS ecosystem in good conscience, despite its power and beauty, because Apple refuses to return any of the trust it demands from its users.

So let’s get this straight: Jon Evans is deeply concerned about a hypothetical dystopic fantasy scenario where Apple turns a 180, abandons all of the privacy principles the company has adhered to for decades and has prominently promoted as a competitive advantage, and begins cooperating with the U.S. government to surveil iOS users. To alleviate his concerns, Evans wants Apple to stop its efforts to close jailbreaking exploits, and in the meantime, he can’t “recommend the iOS ecosystem in good conscience”. This, despite the fact that in the actual world, today, we know for a fact from the Hacking Team data breach that various governments around the world — including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Ethiopia, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, Azerbaijan, and Turkey — have been sold software that allows them to snoop on iOS devices, but only if the devices have been jailbroken.

I’m sure iOS users want Apple to get right on this.