Apple legend Bill Atkinson, left, and Andrew Stone talk Steve Jobs, drugs and the Internet at AltConf 2014 in San Francisco. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac
SAN FRANCISCO — At Apple’s WWDC developer conference, there are talks about interface design, writing code and fixing bugs.
Across the street at indie spinoff AltConf, the talks are concerned with spying on users and making choices between good and evil.
“We have had a hand in creating one of the most dystopian and undesirable societies imaginable,” said Andrew Stone, a veteran programmer who once worked with Steve Jobs, during a talk entitled “What Have We Built Here?”
It’s not the kind of stuff you’d expect to hear at a developer’s conference, but in an age of widespread government spying and cynicism about corporate slogans like “Don’t be evil,” AltConf highlights that programmers are often presented with moral choices. There’s a growing awareness in the coding community that although the activity of programming is benign, what’s created can be used for evil. Take Maciej Cegłowski’s talk last month in Germany, which has been widely discussed on the Web. Cegłowski argues — convincingly — that the utopian ideals of the early internet have been thoroughly corrupted, and the entire industry is “rotten.”
There are few companies you can trust with your private data ever since the revelations leaked by Edward Snowden shook the tech world last year, but according to the latest report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, our iPhone-making friends in Cupertino have gone from being a privacy chump to the people’s champ in just a year.
The data-hungry tentacles of the NSA have managed to choke America’s top tech firms into silent submission on data requests, but after months of demanding more transparency, Apple is ready to defy authorities and let you know when the NSA wants your data.
Prosecutors warn that such a move will undermine investigations by tipping off criminals and allowing them to destroy sensitive data, but according to the Washington Post, Apple and others have already changed their policies.
While accusations about NSA backdoors to Apple devices have been doing the rounds for a while now, yesterday’s revelations about spying agencies using so-called “leaky apps” to capture user data has reignited the debate. Below is a Q&A covering everything we’ve learned so far:
Q) What is a leaky app?
A) An app that transmits private user information across the Internet. While apps have come under fire for collecting private user information before, the current outcry follows revelations leaked by Edward Snowden, suggesting that leaky apps have been the focus of spying organizations such as the NSA and its UK counterpart, GCHQ (Government Communications HQ). The NSA has cumulatively spent more than $1 billion in its phone targeting efforts. A 2010 NSA presentation cites poor secured apps as a “golden nugget” for gathering user information — including, but not limited to, address books and friend lists.