"More than machinery, we need humanity."
The new Apple product never falls too far from the technical tree; and the digital fruit that is picked from the orchard this season is rarely significantly different from the previous season’s. Thus, the Apple products unveiled on September 10, 2013, appear to, may appear underwhelming unless one is an evangel in the church founded by Steve Jobs.
The release of the iPhone5 (the premium model S and the less expensive model C) as well as the new iOS 7 is the regular performance in which tech companies try to justify the degree to which planned obsolescence is essential to their business model by emphasizing how different new products are whilst ignoring that the differences are, really, fairly minor. Faster speed, improved battery life, a better camera, these are not revolutionary changes, but rather basic alterations that will barely be recognizable. More interesting than the S model is the C model, wherein Apple is deliberately making a less “high end” product so that they can increase their market share by selling iPhone’s to groups (internationally) who had been drawn by the allure of the Apple logo but had been put off by the price. Apple’s hope is that the C model will draw a whole new group of users into their orchard of planned obsolescence (as opposed to some other company getting these users).
Indeed, it would be easy to dismiss of these new shiny Apple devices as nothing more than a badly cloaked attempt by Apple to rally the faithful to make more money for the company’s shareholders if it were not for one rather fascinating feature of the new iPhone 5S. It is called: Touch ID, it is a fingerprint scanner. No longer will iPhone users need to touch the “home” button, swipe, and then enter a password…now the user’s fingerprint will be the password. Apple’s website explains this new feature – using the company’s standard vaguely superior tone – thusly:
“we’ve taken touch to the next logical place with Touch ID, the fingerprint identity sensor. Your fingerprint is the perfect password. You always have it with you. And no one can ever guess what it is. But beyond that, it just made sense to us that your phone should recognize you. It should learn you. Not require you to memorize and enter passwords in order to use it.”
There is a doctoral dissertation worth of material in those above lines. However, to keep it brief (or briefer than a dissertation) it is worth noting primarily two aspects in the above sentences, specifically the words “it just made sense to us” and the idea that a user should not have to “memorize and enter passwords.” To put it simply, what Touch ID is being portrayed as is an easy way for a user to sign into their iPhone without having to remember a password (which is obviously so onerous) and without needing to worry that their password has been stolen. It may be amusing to make jokes about Apple displaying it’s clear California bias against those wearing gloves when it gets cold out, but I suppose fingerless gloves may experience an uptick in sales this winter. But as with most important matters, the joke is ultimately on us.
Gathering fingerprint data, which is a type of biometric data, is far too significant a change for it to be simply waffled over with some explanation about ease of use. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation puts it:
“biometrics are costly, prone to error, and present extreme risks to privacy and individual freedom. Once biometric data is captured, it frequently flows between governmental and private sector users. Companies have developed biometric systems to control access to places, products and services. Citizens can be asked for a thumbprint to access e-government services or enter a room in a corporate headquarters. Geolocation tracking, video surveillance and facial recognition software built on top of large biometrics collections can further enable pervasive surveillance systems.”
While Apple (and its competitors) have been gathering a host of information about users for years, there still seems to be an important distinction between banking information and information that is as truly personal as fingerprints (I imagine that the iPhone 6 will probably require a retina scan and the iPhone 9 will require a full DNA sequence). A person’s contacts, educational situation, financial information, and so forth may all change over the course of a person’s life but a fingerprint? That does not change, it is an essential marker of a human’s individuality, and needs to be considered as distinct from other types of data. Biometric information should not be allowed to simply fall in with other bits of “transactional” information. Or to put it another way: a person’s fingerprint is not a password, it is that person’s fingerprint. Allowing it to be harnessed as a password turns the hand (and the human) ever more into just another appendage of the machine.
When the topic of biometric Ids comes up it is frequently met with resistance by privacy groups, and yet the 5S proves another example of the way that a company can act with a level of impunity that even a nominally democratic government cannot. The significance here is important whether or not a given individual intends to get one of these new Apple products for technological changes, once introduced in seemingly innocuous ways, easily disperse throughout a society. This was explained masterfully by Langdon Winner, in his book Autonomous Technology, wherein he noted:
“Technological transformation occurs prior to any “use,” good or ill, and takes place as a consequence of the construction and operating design of technological systems…This does not mean that the instrument cannot be judged as to whether it is used well or poorly for good or for evil. It does suggest, however, that by the time the issue of “use” comes up for consideration at all, many of the most interesting questions involved in how technologies are constituted and how they affect what we do are settled or submerged.” (Winner, 224)
In other words, it may already be too late for there to be much in the way of a public debate about whether or not the public thinks that the gathering of this biometric data by a private company is a good or bad idea. The public was not involved in this debate, it was simply that those at Apple felt “it just made sense to us.” Yet it is essential to bear in mind that just because a group can create impressive new technology does not signify anything about their ethical qualifications in doing so. Indeed, those familiar with apples (as in the fruit) should know that the apple seed actually contains traces of arsenic, and Apple (as in the company) is now providing excellent proof that their company is quite capable of poisoning the public.
While Apple would certainly defend the gathering of this fingerprint data by highlighting that the fingerprint information will be encrypted and safely stored, this should be met with a high degree of skepticism given the recent revelations about the NSA’s ability to crack through encrypted information. While Apple knows that it needs to make it seem that this information will be secure, it seems that it will be only a matter of time before a news report reveals that this biometric data is being stored, that it is being given over to a governmental agency, or that it is being used for some other nefarious purpose. Touch ID may claim to be all about ease of use, but it is a societal transformation not a mere phone upgrade. It is an alteration that meshes well with Lewis Mumford’s comments (from Technics and Civilization) that:
“In the translation of technical improvements into social processes, however, the machine has undergone a perversion: instead of being utilized as an instrument of life, it has tended to become an absolute Power and social control, once exercised chiefly by military groups who had conquered and seized the land, have gone since the seventeenth century to those who have organized and controlled and owned the machine.” (Mumford, 281)
As Apple seeks to integrate technology ever more seamlessly into our lives it is essential to remain aware that our essential human attributes (such as our fingerprints) have value outside of their ability to turn phones on. Furthermore the case of Touch ID should stand as a stark reminder that in our contemporary society a cloistered group of technicians have been empowered by the market and their own delusions into being able to make decisions that will have far reaching implications for the public without consulting the public in any meaningful way (“voting with your wallet” is not meaningful). If people were made uncomfortable by the notion of the government collecting such biometric data they should be equally concerned (if not more so) by the notion that a private company is gathering this information. In turning fingerprints, our very human qualities, into just data points we see further, as Mumford wrote:
“our machine-dominated society is oriented solely to “things,” and its members have every kind of possession except self-possession.” (Mumford, 400)
As we are asked (or required) to surrender ever more information to technology it should not be forgotten that the type of “freedom” that Touch ID, and much other technology, brings is a vulgar freedom in which all that we are really free to do is use a crummy technological toy that will be obsolete in a year. It is as Max Horkheimer wrote (in Eclipse of Reason [this quote has been used before on this site]):
“the more devices we invent for dominating nature, the more must we serve them if we are to survive.” (Horkheimer, 66)
Apple is a company that has succeeded in releasing numerous products that have redefined our technological society, and yet there is no indication that the Apple employees have particularly dwelled on the ethical or privacy implications of the new products they unveil. Touch ID has the potential to usher in a new era in which our biometric information becomes just another password, and this era has arrived not with debate but with a product announcement. The calm friendly voice of Apple’s propaganda ministry coaxing users that Apple “knows best” or “it just made sense to us” or “this will make it easier for you” hides the fact that it is really just Big Brother using a voice modulator.
What was really revealed by Apple at their recent unveiling is the simple fact that this is a company that is rotten to the core.
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Horkheimer, Max. Eclipse of Reason. Continuum, 2004.
Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Winner, Langdon. Autonomous Technology. MIT Press, 1989.