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😐 How very neutral of you
Porn is my favourite ‘health crisis’, actually | A look at the misuse of Apple AirTags and bluetooth networks in general
Hello online friends. This week felt like the result of a bad Covid-19 self haircut. Funny that. I’m going to focus on these things for you in this issue:
The right wing have a really thirsty fetish for banning things, even when it’s by accident
Google and Apple are teaming up to address the AirTag problem
👨🏻⚖️ Let’s check back in with those dusty old state legislators in the US
First I just want to demonstrate the ineptitude of lawmakers in the US by directing you towards Montana, one of the first states to try and outright ban TikTok. They’ve just changed the language in their draft bill to say that they will actually ban any social media which happens to engage in “the collection of personal information or data” — which yes, is all social media. They either don’t know how to write clearly, or they literally have no idea how any of the internet works. Let’s be fair and say it’s a bit of both.
Anyway, let’s now turn our attention to Utah, where they passed an unreasonable and unenforceable law that requires porn websites to verify the age of every user. Cheerful result: Pornhub is now not available to anyone living in Utah. I have rapidly decreasing levels of hope that lawmakers will ever understand this one simple thing: if you make a law aimed at an internet thing, that is impossible to actually comply to, those internet things will either just break that law (without anyone really realising) OR they will pull their services from that specific jurisdiction. We’re seeing the exact same thing play out with the UK’s online safety bill: if it becomes law, it would force encrypted messaging services (like WhatsApp and Signal) to break encryption, which they are not willing to do — but they are willing to leave the UK.
Lawmakers in Utah think that porn is some kind of virus that’s twisting their children into slippery sex-crazed little goblins. Let’s say that’s true. Slapping an age verification requirement on porn sites will not stop anyone from watching porn. However it will do these things:
Force users to hand data over to porn sites that they may not be comfortable sharing, and then have no control over what happens to that data
Push users to go to other, probably much worse websites, that definitely don’t care about complying with laws
Bonus thing for people Utah: inspire everyone to use a VPN!
Now I’m just NOT SURE what lawmakers stand to gain from any of the above. Even if all porn sites cave and put age verification systems in place — which, let’s face it, is just pure surveillance — I don’t think the state government will have access to that information. Which is silly, because that would be the smart thing to do if you were truly evil. I think they are just truly dumb, and enjoy thudding their voters over the head with moral outrage.
🛰️ If you want proof that ‘neutral tech’ doesn’t exist then this is it
Apple and Google are going to band together to solve the accidental bluetooth surveillance problem that they both caused. What an unlikely duo! Finally putting their differences aside to ‘fix’ a series of issues that they could have easily foreseen. Gosh what heroes.
This accidental bluetooth surveillance problem is the network of bluetooth devices that Apple has created to help you find lost things. iPhones are on this network unless you specifically turn it off, but the real problem is AirTags. These are very small, and you can attach them to your keys or put them in your bag or something, and then use your phone to find these things should you lose them. Makes sense, and is useful.
🤦 Okay but obviously people can abuse AirTags and the network in general to stalk others and generally be gross — this is why Apple and Google (AirTags also work on Android) are now working to standardise some security measures. I assume that Apple, a company made of thousands of people, probably contains some product designers who are aware that tiny, inconspicuous, lightweight bluetooth devices tethered to the same network would likely be used by some to follow women home from the pub — and yet they designed them anyway. It’s almost as if the safety of their users isn’t their priority, hahaha.
This whole mess reminds me of a concept that’s been in my brain a lot this week thanks to Charley Johnson, one of my clients. In an upcoming piece, he cites Lewis Mumford in describing technology as either being a tool or a system: tech as tool is something you use to complete a task; tech as a system is something that, frankly, uses you.
Okay, so let’s say AirTags are tools. You use them to make sure you don’t lose your keys. That may have been their intended purpose, but because the AirTag is just a tool, the user can do whatever they like with it. They can pretend it’s a pebble and try and skim it across water. And yes, they can pop it in a stranger’s bag and follow them home. Remember this fact the next time someone tries to tell you that tech is ‘neutral’. See also: Steam Decks (a hand held gaming console) are being used to control gun turrets in Ukraine. So glad the gaming industry could lend a hand…
I think also this mesh network of bluetooth devices — and indeed any network like this, such as Amazon’s Sidewalk — presents other tensions. These networks are not tools but systems: they are invisible, and their benefits to users are minimal.
The first tension is how enhancements to ‘personal security’ encroach on personal privacy. This is a tough one because obviously people should do whatever they want to feel more secure. But putting all your devices on a network which tracks precise locations is definitely a compromise. And I think (because I’ve seen this) that people start behaving very differently when they are conveniently given minute details about the proximity of strange bluetooth devices, or the frequency that someone knocks on their front door when they’re not home. These are all normal and incidental happenings, but when they are framed as security alerts, they inspire suspicion and paranoia. If you think that sounds ridiculous, please look at these multiple articles about neighbourhood security apps and how they’ve changed collective behaviours.
I’m not trying to write these systems off entirely; loads of people lose their keys and their phones all the time. I had the ‘Find My’ network feature on my iPhone turned off until a few months ago when a man decided to watch me getting changed through my bedroom window, and then put a note through my door telling me he loved that we now had a connection, and that he would be back. My girlfriend suggested to turn the feature back on so at least if I was out and about and felt unsafe, she could see where I was and come get me. This is good and makes sense but I still did it begrudgingly. Why? Because of the second tension.
The second tension is that you have to contribute your devices’ battery power and bandwidth to what is essentially a surveillance network. Again, this is so complicated because if this is what you have to do to feel safe, then so be it. But also — WHY is this what someone has to do to feel safe?? It’s hard to tell if it’s even worth it.
Amazon’s messaging about the Sidewalk network is just a bottomless brunch of purported, non-existent benefits: you ‘get to’ add your device to the network; your devices are then connected to billions of others for free; this enables the creation of EVEN MORE devices. I mean, are these benefits? Or are they a series of headaches and potential security risks? Amazon definitely gets a lot more out of maintaining a network of devices than you do when you add your smart fridge to it.
If you don’t already, go ahead and subscribe to Charley Johnson’s newsletter Untangled; he really digs deep into how technologies shape our behaviours and vice versa — if you like reading me you’ll probably like him even more!