Goodbye Ownership & Privacy: Apple, Amazon, the Government Have Your Numbers

Brian Hogan, 21, of Redwood City, California found a prototype Apple iPhone 4G accidentally left in a German Beer garden by a (soused?) Apple employee.

Hogan recognized the phone for what it was. He knew that any news of what Apple does is devoured more voraciously than a teenage girl’s diary found in a locker room by the cheerleading squad. Hogan sold the phone, probably illegally, to the website Gizmodo, a part of Gawker Media.

Jason Chen at Gizmodo blogged about the iPhone, to the shivering delight of fanboys everybody. We learned, among other things, that the next generation phone was “3 grams heavier.” Fascinating, no?

An explosion of debate hit the net. About whether Hogan was a thief or public servant (thief), about whether Gawker should have paid or immediately returned the phone to Apple (they should have returned), whether Chen was an unethical journalist or ethical one (unethical), even whether Chen is a real journalist or “just a blogger” (real journalist).

None of this debate is of more than transitory interest. Missing almost completely from the many analyses was the most important fact of all.

When Apple discovered the loss of the phone, it remotely “wiped” out its contents, so that those contents, of course, could not be readable by the likes of technicians at Gizmodo.

At best, there was a resigned sigh over this remote wipe out. Just think of the delicious secrets we could have learned! (None.)

But we did learn the tastiest secret of all! Apple has remote control over iPhones. This includes the iPhone that you bought, that you supposedly own, on which contains a wealth of your personal information.

If Apple can wipe out data remotely, it is not a stretch to suggest that they could capture data remotely. Your data. This includes those special pictures you have. Many apps already communicate your actions to ad servers or other third parties.

The numbers you called, how long you talked, and even where you were when you made the calls was already known by AT&T, iPhone’s exclusive carrier.

All cell phone carriers have already worked with police in revealing call records. And it must be admitted that these relationships have been useful in apprehending and convicting criminals.

Cell phone calls used to be open for all to hear until Congress passed a law banning sale of equipment that could tune into the relevant frequencies (a silly law, like most: any radioman can overcome this, and now technology has changed so that calls themselves are not sent in “in the clear”). And, of course, it is no stretch to imagine that cell phones can be engineered to transmit surreptitiously, and thus be turned into bugs.

Switch to Amazon and its Kindle. Everybody by now knows that in July 2009, Amazon remotely wiped out copies of Orwell’s 1984 from all Kindles. Why they did it is not interesting (a contract dispute), but what is is that they could do it.

Many Kindle owners were surprised to learn that they did not own the material stored on their devices, but that they merely licensed it. The Kindles allow users to make annotations on its licensed material. Can Amazon retrieve this information remotely?

Google captures and stores your searches. All the websites you visit know what you’re up to. Email is no more secure than a postcard. You internet carrier has a complete record of the material you downloaded (at the household level, and possibly at the browser level).

Facial recognition software, which has reasonable error rates, is installed in an increasing number of locations.

In short, and obviously, the nature of ownership and privacy has changed. It will continue to do so and not in your favor. Less of what is in your possession will be legally yours, and more of what you do will be available to public scrutiny.

It is about here that the undead argument “Why worry if you have nothing to hide?” is trotted out. If you’re truly an innocent, why care if some government bureaucracy thumbs through your old emails, personal files, and listens in on your calls?

The answer to this is obvious: it is easier than dropping an hammer on your foot for someone to take your actions out of context and insinuate evil motives. It is the full majesty, power, and unlimited resources of the government against pathetic, weak, finite you. Almost any mundane event can be turned into a sinister-sounding plot by a mustache-twisting government lawyer.

Solution? None, really. Restraining the government appears to be beyond our will. And nobody wants to be a, or be accused of being, a Luddite. Practically, you should realize that anything done on-line or over-the-air is public domain.

Once this knowledge is assimilated, will it lead to a more civil society?


  1. Wow! I had no idea that Apple and had that kind of technology. Thanks for bringing me up to speed.

    You are right, with the way government is quickly becoming a fascist totalitarian state, this does not bode well for Americans!


  2. Bernie

    George Orwell was a smart guy.

  3. Steve E

    A chip in our phone is not too far off a chip in our head, though our love affair with our phones may make it unnecessary.

    Beam me up Scotty!

  4. Ari


    The way you set up your argument kind of confuses me. You start by saying: “Apple and Google and Amazon have increasing control over your information.” You then segue into a sort of nervous view of government in the era of government encroachment of civil liberties.

    That misses the point, in my opinion. As much as we dislike, distrust, or are otherwise unhappy with government’s role in our lives, at least they are voted in and out to some degree. Government is in part under our control. Corporations? Well, I suppose you could buy shares and vote as a shareholder, but that’s something of a poll tax (and a hefty one, if you want any real power.)

    Corporations, and more specifically the massive multinational corporations we all know and love (think Forbes 100) lack no such checks on their powers. AT&T wants to spy on your texts? Well, the EULA, section 15, subsection 2, line 3, sub-line 5 says it’s okay. Vote with your dollars? Good luck. Not only are you probably signed into a century-long contract, every other carrier will have the same crap attached to their rules.

    It wasn’t government that Madison warned of in Federalist 10. It was factions.

    Doctor Bulldog,

    Fascism- noun

    1. an authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization.

    2. Banality used in place of actual discussion of civil liberties, government, and large organizations.

    3. Internet insult used against opponents during times of disagreement.

    I’d be more interested in discussions of the US becoming “fascist” or “totalitarian” if we started seeing elections being held up. That seems unlikely at best. At most, what we have now is what we had when protesters marched in the 2000s, calling Bush a “fascist.” That is, definition 3.

  5. Doug M

    One of my favorites in “survalence culture” are the cameras that log every car that enters central London.

  6. Speed

    “The chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems said Monday that consumer privacy issues are a ‘red herring.'”

    “‘You have zero privacy anyway,’ Scott McNealy told a group of reporters and analysts Monday night at an event to launch his company’s new Jini technology.”

    “‘Get over it.'”

    Wired. January 26, 1999.

    “He’s right on the facts, wrong on the attitude.”
    Stephen Manes, PCWorld. April 18, 2000

  7. Luis Dias

    But we did learn the tastiest secret of all! Apple has remote control over iPhones. This includes the iPhone that you bought, that you supposedly own, on which contains a wealth of your personal information.

    “Secret”? Well, mr Briggs, do you live in a cave or what? Remote Swipe is a FEATURE of the iPhone, so that if it is stolen, you can remotely wipe all the data inside. Oh, did Apple do that? Well, sure, it was THEIR PHONE in the first place, D’oh!

    There is a growing concern over data, to which I do agree with you. To take it as a “therefore the government is ev1l” kinda post is silly. Corporations didn’t need governments to have so much control over this kind of data. Ironically, it would be the government, given enough information to the population, that would regulate copyright infringement in a way that would secure your data.

    To say that this is government erecting a big brother is beyond ridiculous, it’s paranoia in the extreme, and worse, it’s completely misplaced. Yes, BB is being created, but by the corporations that want our money. They do it because they want to control how much music you can hear without pirating it, they want to know your buying habits, they want to not lose control over the music industry, the film industry, the software, etc.,etc.

    It’s all about control alright, but it’s not about “government” control. No. This time is about money. And let us be clear about this, because you quoted Orwell. Well, Orwell also said that it didn’t matter what kind of ideology drove you, BB can be reached by whatever ideology you have.

  8. Luis Dias

    You are right, with the way government is quickly becoming a fascist totalitarian state, this does not bode well for Americans!

    I mean this is just silly. So Apple remotes swipes its own phone, google has a lot of data, amazon erased 1984 out of many of its clients, therefore da government is fasc11ist!!!.

    What am I missing here?!?!! Oh yeah, a LINE OF ARGUMENT. (facepalm!)

  9. Briggs

    Luis, Ari,

    You’re right to suggest that the segue was poorly done. And it is also true that private firms have immense capacity for mischief. But never as much as the government does.

    For example, governments can always find a way to legally subpoena data from non-government agents, no matter their corporate philosophy.

    I don’t think I suggested, as our old friend Luis implies, that “government is evil.” In fact, I pointed out instances where non-privacy was useful in stemming criminal activity. I do suggest that government should be limited—and monitored!—and that its growth and control should be resisted.

    I merely regret the loss of freedom and privacy. And ownership!

    Our voting power is limited because, no matter the fresh politician, the bureaucracy survives largely intact. And it is the bureaucracies that are capable of the most mischief.


    My “cave” is pretty common. I’d bet that most iPhone users are unaware of the potential their data can be snooped.

  10. Briggs


    The definition of fascism is OK for 2 and 3, but not so much for 1. The examples we have of actual fascist governments (like Italy) were strongly left wing. Let’s not forget that Mussolini was a card-carrying socialist.

  11. Luis Dias

    My point was that the remote wipe feature of the iPhone is meant for the USER of the iPhone to be able to remotely wipe it. Which was what happened.

  12. Marr:

    “Once this knowledge is assimilated, will it lead to a more civil society?”

    It hasn’t if the comment sections at Kos’ or Huff’s is any indication.

  13. Briggs


    Quite right, remote wipe out can be used as a benefit for the user. But it also can be used against him to collect his data. We are trusting Apple not to do this.

  14. PJ

    That misses the point, in my opinion. As much as we dislike, distrust, or are otherwise unhappy with government’s role in our lives, at least they are voted in and out to some degree. Government is in part under our control. Corporations? Well, I suppose you could buy shares and vote as a shareholder, but that’s something of a poll tax (and a hefty one, if you want any real power.)

    I hold that it’s more the interplay of the two that guarantees our protection.

    The government is elected, but its structures so byzantine that regular people will never know what it’s doing unless it impacts them directly. And even then fighting “terrorists” and stopping child porn provide adequate excuse to scare people into relinquishing whatever privacy they have “for the children.”

    At the same time, people’s business dealings are built on trust. So we allow Apple to have this theoretical control and access to our info. becase we trust them not to abuse it. If they do abuse it, though, and that trust is violated, then the people will clamor to have the government clamp down on this sort of behavior with regulation. Apple/Google/Amazon would fear such regulation so the combination of the government’s ability to drop the hammer on them combined with its restraint from doing so creates a situation where it is in their best interests to be good stewards of our data.

    The only price we pay is that every now and then some overzealous prosecutor will try to subpeona this info. and the company in question will have to take a principled stand. So we want them at odds with each other. When the government and the big corporations start to trust each other that’s when the problems start because combining the two most powerful agents in society can only end in a conspiracy to defraud the public (Ref: See confluence of SEC + Wall Street, EPA + extractive industries, and other instances of regulatory capture by the industries they’re meant to regulate).

  15. WJb

    Sounds like it’s time for a new phone company that can promise secure privacy and decent ownership. Call it, CallCage.

    Sure, everything you put online is like a ‘postcard’ and everything you buy on line is simply licensed. If you want to be private, do like film noir dicks did. Ask your client to come meet you cause the phone might be screwy.

    These smart phones are built to make your life as public as possible. You want people to know what you had for breakfast, where your gym is located, and what bar your at. They are advertised to promote the mini-celebrity in all of us. Protecting a few licenses and bad pictures is the last thing on anyone mind. Plenty of reputable personalities get caught making a fool of themselves thanks to technology. Their reputations survived. We don’t have to worry.

    The government will cherry pick info they need, but some of our elected politicians might also raise a stink about our right to privacy and ownership, like spitzer, in a campaign to look adequately concerned about his facebook fans.

  16. Ari


    I disagree with you. Most of the smart phones are not really designed that way. In fact, the smart phones are designed largely with flexibility. Really, it’s the semi-smart phones like the KIN that are built largely with social networking in mind.

    The smart phone is a portable computer, and it comes with the freedom to install what you want and what you don’t want. I don’t have Twitter on my iPhone. I deleted Facebook. I use it for Internet, calls, and a few neat apps and games. I even turn off the location tracking because I prefer to save the battery. Same thing with my computer. I don’t NEED Facebook, but I can have it if I choose to have it.

    I think the big problem isn’t the phones– it’s the services we choose to use via the phones or the Internet. The phones give us the choice, but they don’t force you to post pictures of your shenanigans online. You do, and Facebook allows you to do so.

  17. Bob

    “Switch to Amazon and its Kindle. Everybody by now knows that in July 2009, Amazon remotely wiped out copies of Orwell’s 1984 from all Kindles.”

    Right after I bought my iPhone and added the (at that time) new Kindle application, I downloaded a number of “free” books from Amazon, among them “1984”. Since there were several books I downloaded at the same time, I did not miss “1984” when it disappeared, and didn’t know anything about the remote erasure until I read about it in the popular press.

    There seems to be nothing I can do to limit Apple’s and other’s ability to snoop, but, I do keep my GPS functionality turned off. I read that some apps use this function to report back to their “mother ship” my whereabouts when I use an app. It is not clear which apps have this ability.

  18. Person of Choler

    Ari would “be more interested in discussions of the US becoming “fascist” or “totalitarian” if we started seeing elections being held up. That seems unlikely at best.”

    When elections start being held up it is far, far too late for mere discussions.

  19. Briggs


    Even if you turn off the GPS, you can still be found. The cell towers tell where you: they constantly talk to the cell phone.

  20. Ari


    There’s always jailbreaking.

    Person of Choler,

    Perhaps, but until then I find it silly to start screaming “fascism” when we already know the face of fascism through historical record and see little today that tells us we are anywhere near there.

    I think it’s important to maintain perspective: being part of the loyal opposition doesn’t make the other guy a fascist. Or a communist. Or any other kind of -ist. I tire of simple and meaningless labels.


    Mussolini was as much a socialist as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is democratic. In name only. To call Mussolini socialist is to put his belief system on the same end of the spectrum as Stalin, which I find difficult to swallow. I think it’s easy to forget that the left and the right BOTH end up totalitarian in the end. Fascism is, at its core, a hyper-conservative belief system.

  21. Briggs


    Well, we’ll disagree about Mussolini. However, as any biography of him will show, he learned his socialism from his father’s knee. And Mussolini himself was a proud socialist. But he broke from international socialism and designed a national socialism. This earned him the enmity of the international socialists (a.k.a. communists) who, in retaliation for their abandonment, called Mussolini “right wing”. That name stuck.

    I suggest Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: a good deal of it is a mini-biography of Mussolini.

  22. JohnGalt

    Good morning, Mr. Briggs,

    Another good post. This lack of control of our data is alarming to me. I wonder, is there a phone that uses open source software? I’d like to know what hidden features my phone has.

  23. Telephones have always been subject to tapping by government or other nefarious agents. What is new is data mining and sorting software than can find needles in haystacks. The intelligence community is a leader in that technology, but Big Business is not far behind. They don’t care what you say so much as what you buy.

    Nothing digital is secret or sacred. On the other hand, the traffic on the information superhighway is so voluminous that it’s tough to be heard above the din. It’s not so much about “nothing to hide” as it is about “too much noise.” No matter how perverse of threatening your communications, chances are a few million people are saying something far worse. Finding the true malefactors isn’t easy — and there are real limits to wasting precious police resources on small fry or posers. The Police State doesn’t seem to able catch or stop the serious terrorists, and they haven’t got time for common disgruntled. We can’t even protect our borders from the thousands of very bad criminals who skip across every day, not to mention the tens of thousands of not-so-bad regular illegals.

    Fascism, at least the 1930’s kind, is an impossibility these days. For that matter, Soviet-style communism is impossible to implement in modern times. The real threat comes from cartels: alliances of politicians and business interests that seek to control and exploit markets. Such as Apple and their increasing dominance of mobile communication, or worse, the AGW cartel that seeks energy rents from everyone on the planet.

    The power utility monopoly business model has been adopted by our kleptocracy and is being applied to everything from cars to salt. It’s not your freedom they crave; it’s your wealth.

  24. Rob R

    Someone please get iphones to Michael Mann, Lonnie Thompson and Phil Jones as quickly as possible.

  25. drm

    Having lived in a small town for many years, i would have to agree with McNealy, there isn’t any privacy and there was not much in the ‘good old days’. Spend some time in a small town barbershop or beauty shop if you want the skinny on anybody! I doubt that communications were any more secure and private when it went via paper and sealing wax than now. Technology is just increasing the volume and speed.

  26. Rich

    “Well, we’ll disagree about Mussolini. However, as any biography of him will show, he learned his socialism from his father’s knee.”

    The left knee, presumably. How cool to have a father with talking knees!

  27. JamesGardiner

    Whatever Goldman says, the real socialists were the main opponents of Mussolini and were massacred by him. So whatever his father told him, or whatever he pretended to be, the real socialists didn’t swallow it as easily as you and Goldberg. Similarly the real socialists and communists, which were actually a separate party (as distinct from the communists, another party) in Nazi Germany were among Hitlers first victims too. As it happens, while rich jews will forever regret supporting Hitler (and Mussolini before him), Trotsky from his exile in Turkey was urging the socialists and communists to unite in order to defeat Hitler in the election. Communists and hardline socialists formed the core of almost every resistance movement during world war 2.

    And let’s not forget Franco, who didn’t need to pretend to be anything other than a right wing thug aided by Hilter’s fascists, and whose opponents were also socialist republicans. Hey though – because they called themselves republicans, do you suppose they were really conservatives at heart? Or maybe it’s really a wee bit more complicated. Of course none of this is hard to find out – it’s been on every documentary made and every book written about fascism by every historian of any repute. Of course some people like to rewrite history to suit their own agenda and they rely on people with the same agenda not checking out the actual facts too closely.

    As for fascism in modern America, maybe you’ve heard about the Patriot Act too. Maybe though you don’t know just how much it trampled on civil liberties that were hard fought for.

  28. Briggs


    There is nothing a member of the Judean People’s Front hates more than the a member of the People’s Front of Judea. Socialists of one stripe are always purging, figuratively and literally, socialists of another stripe. And, like you, both sides are always claiming that their side are the “true” socialists. Good grief.

    You speak of Trotsky warning against Hitler, which is true. But that good socialist Joseph Stalin thought that Trotsky wasn’t a “true” socialist and had him iced. Who was the “true” socialist, Lenin? Trotsky? Stalin? Mussolini? Mao? What counts most in the scoring? Body count?

    Yes, Franco was right wing. So? That merely proves that despotic governments arise from the left and the right, but more often from the left.

    The Patriot Act? You mean that act the current administration supports?

    In any case, you have neglected to tell us whether you are comfortable with the government’s—or corporations’—ability to snoop into your privacy.

  29. Briggs


    Say, if I didn’t know better, I’d guess that you haven’t read Goldberg’s book. True? You can tell me.

    I did read the review. The only point with which I have sympathy is the critic’s comment that Goldberg spent too much time on Hillary Clinton. But it should be recalled that he wrote the book when everybody—everybody—thought that she would be the Democrat nominee for president.

    I am unable to locate a page on which Mr Goldberg and other certified historians debate the points of his book (not Clinton; Mussolini, Hitler, Wilson et al.). Can somebody help me out?

    I was able to locate this page, which contains several snippets from the book. Like this one, sure to cause you sleeplessness:

    Hitler’s hatred for communism has been opportunistically exploited to signify ideological distance, when in fact it indicated the exact opposite. Today this maneuver has settled into conventional wisdom. But what Hitler hated about Marxism and communism had almost nothing to do with those aspects of communism that we would consider relevant, such as the economic doctrine or the need to destroy capitalists and bourgeoise. In these areas Hitler largely saw eye to eye with socialists and communists. His hatred stemmed from his paranoid conviction that the people calling themselves communists were in fact in on a foreign, Jewish conspiracy. He says this over and over again in Mein Kampf. — P.75

    And you have also probably missed my extensive review: Part I, II, III. Read them first and them get back to us.

  30. Joy

    I wrote this when comments were at 24.
    Left wing politics has rendered the best examples of fascism. Hitler called his party socialist didn’t he?

    My understanding is that ‘fascism’ describes the rise to power of a social group or faction which forces it’s ideal, usually by dictatorship on another set of people. If the women’s guild had a clique, they could (on paper;) rise to power and enforce their will.

    The IRA is an example of a potentially fascist power. They have been given immunity and so called respectability as a political party with another name. They started off with terrorism and evil acts of violence and torture. (Which hasn’t stopped because they’ve been given a name, incidentally. Perhaps we ought to give them more time? Why are some acts called terrorism and others ‘fights for freedom’? It depends who’s labelling.

    It’s not the views or the labels, it’s the mechanism that ought to be checked and that starts with criminal behaviour, not ‘politically Correct’ regulation. Whose politics is it anyway? We are answerable to our own conscience not some social engineer’s political ideal.
    Where was the calculation that proved what is politically correct?

  31. Laputan Machine
    Flatlander Woman

    “How did you know…”

    Note: Please do not delete. This is *not* spam. You can google the terms. 🙂

  32. Ari

    One big issue I have with this discussion is that I have NO idea what anyone actually thinks “left” means or “right” means.

    Granted, I get the feeling that nobody, anywhere, actually knows what it means. Then again, you’re looking at a guy who’s decided that because the Democrats are largely made up of status quo-minded types, that they’re actually pretty conservative (in the traditional sense of the word.)

    Although it might make a few of you guys bristle to hear it, you’re all pretty classically liberal. That is, many of the commenters here are pretty much in line with Ricardo, Say, et. al. Nothing wrong with that.

    In fact, I think that the support of the PATRIOT (acronym) Act on the part of the current administration is a pretty damn conservative move. Our political conversations in the US are of such a narrow spectrum that even mildly liberal (that is, anti-status quo) moves by legislators and politicians are seen with a great degree of suspicion. I suspect, however, that there is more that Briggs would change about the status quo than I would. In my mind, that makes him liberal (again, anti-status quo.) But liberal… such a nasty word, no?

    Alas, I think our national political dialogue could be much more interesting if we had better vocabulary to describe positions (I’m a “liberal” ’round these parts, but I’m by no means “liberal”). But, I suppose it’s so much more fun to paint in broad brushes– you get bigger happy trees, after all!

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