Apple Clouds Privacy Beyond Acceptance: EFF AWOL

By Stanley JungleibNo Comments

Revised: 20120913

The perspicacious South Park Season 15’s ‘HumancentiPad’ slammed Apple for its social imperialism, as well as users for their gullibility. It being South Park I can only repeat their caveat to watch at your own risk. But if there were any doubt about their targets, I’ve just found a real, stomach-turning systematization by Apple of even poorer taste, but sadly uninformed by Trey and Matt’s higher wisdom.

The issue is transcription, whereby your computer converts your speech into text characters or perhaps computer operations. In following this field I’ve owned all versions of Dragon Naturally Speaking for Windows. Whatever its faults, this has been the leading program for many years, and my only real reason for having a fast Windows machine. The Mac never had anything like it; the third-party MacSpeech being utterly lame until a few years ago apparently licensing the Dragon engine. (Likely enabled by Apple’s switch to Intel processors.)

But the huge productivity difference remained: correct-ability. Dragon succeeded because it adapted to your voice. You could teach it. When it erred, you could nudge it back on course to create a truly efficient process in fact used by hundreds of thousands of professionals. However, MacSpeech remained unteachable. It seemingly didn’t get that part of Dragon, and remained essentially useless.

Imagine my glee to discover there might be a reason for the iPad—built in dictation! I tried it for a simple list. Its performance was mediocre.  It inserted unpredictable and inexplicable processing delays. There was no correction interface and it didn’t seem to be adapting to my speech. Against my denials, it actually seemed to be accessing the web, and dutifully crashing more often than not.

But wait, surely this new version released in the extremely cloudy Mountain Lion 10.8.1 must have a complete implementation for my screaming, solid-state 17″ Pro. They must have gotten adaptivity right by now.

In their minds they did. And their answer is so technically arrogant and extravagant it strains the credulity of their entire PR scheme about their real motivations and the security of your data in their cloud. Searching in vain for an adaptation interface I found their EULA for transcription:

When you use the keyboard dictation feature on your computer, the things you dictate will be recorded and sent to Apple to convert what you say into text. Your computer will also send Apple other information, such as your first name and nickname; and the names, nicknames, and relationship with you (for example, “my dad”) of your address book contacts.  All of this data is used to help the dictation feature understand you better and recognize what you say. Your User Data is not linked to other data that Apple may have from your use of other Apple services.

Information collected by Apple will be treated in accordance with Apple’s Privacy Policy, which can be found at www.apple.com/privacy.

You can choose to turn off the dictation feature at any time. To do so, open System Preferences, click Dictation & Speech, and then click Off in the Dictation section. If you turn off Dictation, Apple will delete your User Data, as well as your recent voice input data. Older voice input data that has been disassociated from you may be retained for a period of time to generally improve Dictation and other Apple products and services. This voice input data may include audio files and transcripts of what you said and related diagnostic data, such as hardware and operating system specifications and performance statistics.

You can restrict access to the Dictation feature on your computer in the Parental Controls pane of System Preferences.

This is stunningly outrageous. As Dragon has proven for over a decade, it is absolutely unnecessary to send all your voice data off your machine to obtain premier performance. Such a scheme adds delay and bandwidth cost with no apparent benefit to the task. I dare say, Apple’s suggested concept is dubious: do they propose to build a library of all the speech patterns in the world? And by when? And are my voice and personal relationships to my Address Book—oh, sorry, I forgot it is Apple’s Address Book—so critical to their success that they have to steal my voice? They don’t have enough different voices among their 47,000 U.S. employees to tune their transcription? Nor within millions of recorded Support calls? Nor internationally? Nor among their legions of alpha-test partners? Seriously? My real-time input is that important to the viability of Apple’s adaptive dictation? Wow. Then it seems Apple should pay me for using iCloud.

Apple ‘geniuses’—as you so modestly redefine language to falsely elevate yourselves—I don’t actually need my dictation optimized for the entire U.S. population nor the world. After twenty years of this nonsense I simply want Macintosh to transcribe adaptively using a program that you can update periodically like any others—and that doesn’t interrupt my time nor compromise my privacy with espionage! I’m in this game: I exactly predicted iTunes Match. For that matter, I was the first to put sound on Intel processors, in 1993. But this dictation architecture is an idea so bizarre, so off-the-wall that I would not have thought it even a remotely reasonable solution, when you are already holding a so-called supercomputer with 32 Gb minimum in your hand. Why on earth would you invoke a network for a job that needs to be fast and local, and for which superabundant processing resources and software already exist?

It seems to me that if they cared at all for our security, real geniuses would have figured out a more efficient way to tweak their Nuance-supplied (Dragon) software than entailing the constant overhead of shipping millions of voice files to Cupertino. After all, the same technology ran on Windows/Intel standalone. Doesn’t it make you kind of wonder why they—no, you—would pay so much to store all of this voice material indefinitely? They must think your junk is quite valuable—though the resulting daily customizations on your behalf can not be much more than parametric adjustments as easily made locally by Dragon software with a downloaded model. And if they cared at all for our security, real geniuses might even be able to design a simple, non-threatening correction interface that likely would not confuse us any more than their arbitrary interface changes to justify system releases. Tellingly, of course none of this requires anything resembling true genius, just honesty and sincerity. Yet Apple doesn’t think we deserve even a simple disclosing dialog box. They may or may not be legally covered, but they are now ethically bared.

The parsimonious explanation for the indignities we are instead dealt by this strategy is most credible: profit. Computing is only incidental to Apple’s future business: marketing demographics. Apple is selling dictation that does not work unless you tell them everything. All your thoughts, business agreements, inventions, all your emails, pillow talk, everything. Voice memos. Bookmarks. All of your information. Captured in their formats, such as the only allowed predictably-searchable Pages, Numbers, and Keynote documents. Siri operations revealing real-time trends. Photostreamed images and videos of your family and friends openly subject to facial recognition which you obediently supply through iPhoto. They want it all. All of you and yours. In your cloud. Or their cloud. Whatever. They really prefer you no longer bother to ask for respect for your life and property: the distinction is now moot. You are for resale. Period.

Please, actually read their privacy statement then try to believe you can fully trust them in concert with “their partners.” Every colorful manager in the U.S.’s now most valuable company might have once been by definition ‘insanely great.’ But that long-uncolored broken fruit may now signify merely ‘schizophrenically insane.’ How else classify conscienceless barkers paid to famously evangelize—that is, propagandize—that they have your interests at heart, while surreptitiously implementing non-negotiable, comprehensive access to your personal communications that the government can’t even obtain without warrant and for which they have a short and mediocre record of protection? We are to believe that, solely for your convenience, they unnecessarily and secretly bundled with dictation essential disclosure of all your ideas, feelings, and relationships. And you can just take it or leave it—if you accidentally even learn about it! Apple’s dictation solution disguises that you are talking to them, not your computer. Apparently mocking even TRUSTe’s commitment to “choice and transparency” as generally understood, Apple’s elusive EULA allows them to ensure most of their users obliviously inter-radiate exhaustive revelations; each life to become a brick in their Global Tower of Babel 2.0. Or, once aware, supplicate elsewhere for service with integrity.

Apple makes this an easy choice and growing competitive opportunity for independent enablers of protected, personal clouds—which actually may not be mandatory for sync nor a desirable security exposure. Unfortunately but predictably, iCloud is now the prime target of hackers worldwide who are happy just to teach Apple apparently deserved lessons in humility—the reports evolve daily. So, you can plan on two things. One, your iCloud data will be scrutinized, analyzed, and data-mined in every conceivable way to ensure that the most possible money can be taken from you by Apple’s new top customers: partnered megacorporations that manipulate the media and the world through demographics. Two, your iCloud data will be further stolen as arguably, it may already have been. Hackers—including the government itself—may get your data and voice recordings before the geeks are done wankin’ with them.

Laughing off FCC’s fining Google an entire $25,000, Apple’s competitor itself could with relative impunity continue to scoop up your now audio-embellished privacy with their street snoops simply to embarrass Apple. Ready to hear you dictating your journal on YouTube? After all, it could be your 15 minutes of fame, times 300,000 views.

The country’s dominant personal technology provider is out of control, their competitors’ patent trolling has gone stratospheric, but we seem to be on our own. As the EFF remains in straight-jacketed self-admiration before their fun-house mirrors—built with Google’s $1M donation in 2011—I have to do their job.

Which is to say: Boycott iCloud. You can’t get anything back. But you can stop sustaining the leeches. Keep your data local, in common formats readable by a variety of likely future apps; encrypt backups with Retrospect, for example; remotely backup to storage specialists like Carbonite. Re-evaluate your real needs for daily sync compared to what you are giving away. You may find even the minimum plan a lousy deal.

To invoke South Park Eric Cartman’s mildest possible condemnation, “Screw you guys. I’m going home.”

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