Are you American? Do you have a “smart” phone?
Then, chances are, you were rudely interrupted by a “Presidential Alert” on October 3rd. The sound of the alert was an offensively loud shriek not unlike the sound your modem would make in the dialup days, except a lot louder and more aggressive. To startle and interrupt people so rudely, the alert must have been pretty important, right?
For those who don’t know, America has an alert system that broadcasts to every cellphone that it can reach. There are a few types of alerts. AMBER Alerts (missing children), Emergency Alerts, and now Presidential Alerts. By default, when your phone receives one of these alerts, it emits that loud warning tone, regardless of whether your phone is “muted” or not.
As it so happens, you can mute the first two alerts. Inevitably, every article that instructs you how to do this insists on injecting their virtue-signaling opinion about how you shouldn’t do this; I found that worth pointing out, for reasons I’ll get to. What you cannot do is mute Presidential Alerts. If Trump wants to text you, he’s going to text you, and you’re going to hear it.
The traitor in your pocket
But the point of this article was not to complain about how the alert system is currently in the hands of a man whose unabridged inner monologue can be found on Twitter. Nor is it even about the alert system itself, per se. The Presidential Alert was a stark reminder that you don’t own your phone.
See those scare quotes around “muted”? I put them there because you don’t really, truly mute your phone. You can only politely ask it to “please refrain from excess noise” with about as much authority as a beleaguered librarian at an inner city library. If that hobo in the corner wants to rave about GPS-equipped sharks, he’s gonna rave. There is no hard mute on your phone.
Time was, our electronics were fully controlled by us. Remember this thing called a volume knob? For those of you too young to remember, there was a physical knob on old stereos. It physically limited the amount of sound that could come through speakers through something called a potentiometer. A potentiometer cannot be outsmarted by hacking or circumvented by software. If the potentiometer is turned all the way down, then no sound is going to get through those speakers.
We don’t have that anymore. Volume is controlled by software that is inaccessible to us and yet very accessible to your phone’s microprocessor (and possibly malicious agents). Those volume buttons on your phone are merely suggestions rather than commands.
The same changes have occurred with cameras and microphones. Once upon a time, both of these sensory inputs could be physically disconnected from your computer, leaving it deaf and blind; no hacker (?) can outsmart the crude effectiveness of physical disconnection. Nowadays, the camera and microphone are built right into your computer. You could tape over the camera which is fine on a desktop, but is a much bigger hassle on your cell phone: do you really want to put up with having to remove the tape, clean the residue off, and then apply new tape every time you want to take a photo?
Then there is your phone’s microphone, which cannot be simply taped over. Whether it is on your computer or your phone, it is a gaping security hole. You are utterly dependent upon abstract and inscrutable vagaries of digital security to protect you from malicious individuals who are looking for a way to record your conversations.
All of these problems are mindlessly simple to solve. Every device could have physical disconnect switches for its sensory inputs and (and outputs) that deny electrical power to those sensors and prevent any data from escaping them anyhow. This is not a complex technical problem to solve. It would add pennies to the cost of devices. This is not a problem of physics or economics. This is a problem of will.
A disturbing trend
Phones that refuse to shut up and mind their own business are part of a greater problem. Remember the Juicero that refused to juice the packs that it deems to be out of date, or the Keurig coffee maker whose concept it borrowed? Especially disturbing are the printers that hide a secret code on your documents allowing the government to identify who printed them out.
Even though you paid your money that you earned with your labor, and these devices are residing in your home, they are not serving you. They are like double agents sent to you by your enemies to spy on you, or even sabotage your life. They are not loyal to you.
The devices that you think of as your property are emphatically not. There are a number of malevolent entities responsible for this trend. Principal among them is the manufacturers themselves. Nothing bothers them more than the fact that, once they sell you something, it belongs to you. Why take someone’s money in exchange for an object when you can take their money and keep the object too? The companies are trying to do exactly that by suing people for unlocking or jailbreaking their phones. It is only by a 2015 US legislation that they can no longer get away with that crap.
On the other hand, the government are not innocent in this matter. The very fact that companies even thought they could send government goons after you for altering your personal property is because of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The NSA “requested” backdoors into operating systems, although the corporations a little too readily rolled over for said goons.
If you think that hackers capturing video of you dancing in the nude to Major Lazer, or being woken up from a deep sleep by a report of some missing kid on the other side of the state are negligible inconveniences, totally acceptable in light of the benefits that technology provides, such as the ability to get beard balm by subscription, consider this: that shit is just the beginning.
Technology is becoming more deeply entwined in our lives. Everything we do in 2018 is suffused with layers of sensors, data, algorithms, machine learning. Your home door locks may already be connected to the internet… it would be a shame if someone locked you out of your own house. The increasing automation and networking of cars is a ticking time bomb. Car hacking incidents are already becoming a problem. This is not science fiction. There is at least one report of Alexa recording a private conversation and e-mailing it to the victim’s friend. Some price to pay for the ability to ask what the capital of Kentucky is while doing the dishes.
And all of that only relates to the digitization of current technologies. What about the really futuristic stuff? Imagine if your 3D printer gets uppity when you try to print something that it deems in violation of a patent? What about your home bioreactor that you use to make your own medicine. You can forget making anything scheduled by the DEA, or anything under patent, or even available only by prescription that you don’t have. And when life-extending drugs are patented, perhaps the aristocracy will deem you unworthy of eternal life, so those will be unavailable too.
As bad as you can imagine the consequences of the bad guys owning your possessions, imagine ten times worse.
The fucked-up mentality behind all of this
I recall a time in the mid 2000s when I was trying to load MP3s onto my iPod. Rather than allowing me to treat the device like any other thumb drive, dragging the files manually, I had to go through the awkward and unintuitive intermediary of iTunes. The same issue occurred years later when I was trying to load some files onto my iPad before a presentation. The process was so unbelievably convoluted, I had to resort to just e-mailing them to myself. Even back then, my devices were working to hinder me, forbidding me to directly manipulate the data on them.
If you really want to go back a ways, there were my grade school days in the computer lab when the Apple II computers had their power buttons in the back, so pain-in-the-ass classmates could walk by and turn your machine off. Already, in mid-80s, Apple was pioneering the concept of 3rd party access to your technology.
Obviously, Apple does not sell these design decisions as traitorous or compromising. They call it convenience or (worse) “magic”. And the consumers eat it up. Apple managed to craft such a bulletproof reputation that even features that were bad for the user experience were somehow positioned as incredible, and at least some segment of the population bought into it. Android entered the market claiming to be the user-empowering alternative, but they quickly turned.
While we could attribute this all to a sinister cabal of corporate snakes conspiring against the general populace, it really is more complicated than that. Behind this anti-user sentiment is not as much malice as you might expect, but something far more frightening: altruism. Some people at these companies really think they are doing us a favor.
Remember when I bemoaned the image of designers as a bunch of spoiled hyper-urban hipsters who have no idea how to change a tire? Remember how I said they have no idea what adversity is, let alone how to design for it? This is what I am talking about.
If you live in a world where life is about taking Instagram selfies at the local faux saloon (that serves craft cocktails), where “roughing it” means glamping at Coachella, anguish is the feeling of being “triggered” by a differing opinion, and rebellion against the status quo means dyeing your hair like a rainbow, then what need have you of hack-proof technology? If you never hold an opinion counter to the accepted groupthink, what does it matter if that opinion is leaked to the world? These are people who see rugged individualism as “problematic”, so of course any technology designed to protect the self against the many would be unnecessary if not unacceptable.
This is why I wrote a rant about how hipster designers are a bigger problem than we’d like to admit. They are the ones enabling the degeneration of technology into a tool of control. They aren’t doing it because they think it will hurt us, but because they think we would all be better off if we were “woke”.