Apple is driving deeper into Surveillance Valley. The company yesterday announced CarPlay, a tool that allows drivers to interact with its mapping, messaging, and music services via their car’s built-in controls. The tool’s flagship feature is its ability to “predict where you most likely want to go using addresses from your email, text messages, contacts, and calendars.”
Basically, this means that Apple will sift through your digital communications and personal data to save you the agony of entering an address. In doing so, the company might just create a service that will allow it to escape from cartographic purgatory — all it has to do is convince you that your privacy is less important than your laziness.
Luckily, another company has already laid much of the foundation for such a pitch: Google.
The world’s largest tech companies (namely Google and Apple) are trying to become better map-makers. Sometimes this requires a more detailed view of the physical world, but more often it requires a better understanding of the person consulting a map than the location it describes. That’s because maps are no longer static representations of the mountains and valleys that dot the landscape. They’re personalized views of every restaurant, mall, and tourist attraction you might care about.
As Google’s Michael Jones explained to the Atlantic in January:
The major change in mapping in the past decade, as opposed to in the previous 6,000 to 10,000 years, is that mapping has become personal.
It’s not the map itself that has changed. You would recognize a 1940 map and the latest, modern Google map as having almost the same look. But the old map was a fixed piece of paper, the same for everybody who looked at it. The new map is different for everyone who uses it. You can drag it where you want to go, you can zoom in as you wish, you can switch modes – traffic, satellite — you can fly across your town, even ask questions about restaurants and directions. So a map has gone from a static, stylized portrait of the Earth to a dynamic, inter-active conversation about your use of the Earth.
It’s up to companies to create those new, mutable maps.
Apple is using CarPlay to do that by making it easier to find the museum your fiancée texted you about, the meeting place your colleague emailed to you, or the address of an estranged friend with whom you’re trying to reconnect. Google has taken it a step further by recommending restaurants based on your online reviews, monitoring your search history so you can find the winery you frantically sought during a visit with your in-laws, and letting you know how long it will take to get home from wherever you are.
Having that information readily available is more convenient than searching for a specific location and entering its address into a separate navigation tool, but Apple and Google aren’t making your life easier out of some sense of corporate altruism. They’re getting something out of the deal, too: your personal information.
We still think of mobile phones as just phones. But what used to be a technology to reach out and touch someone has turned into perhaps the greatest surveillance tool ever invented — a sophisticated tech appendage that’s always with us, and is used by powerful corporate interests to spy on and profile us for profit. All our smartphone activities are funneled through corporate mainframe computers, which record and analyze what we do, who we talk to, where we go, what we buy, what songs we listen to, what movies we watch…
The ultimate goal of all this monitoring: to understand us as intimately as possible, and to squeeze as much profit from that intel.
Google is the prototypical Surveillance Valley company. It surveils your entire digital life to create a database of personal information it can use to display more relevant ads. It follows you around online, scans your emails, tracks your location, and monitors your search history. This helps the company make money by showing you more relevant ads, and in exchange you get services like Google Now and Google Maps.
Apple is also trying to gather as much information about you as possible. It scans your emails, tracks your location, and will soon start mining your address book and reading your text messages. This might help the company increase the time you spend with its products and, eventually, convince you to purchase another Apple product down the road.
CarPlay will also encourage iPhone users to use Siri — every compatible vehicle will feature a button to summon Apple’s virtual assistant directly from the steering wheel — which will send even more data to the company’s servers to be gathered, analyzed, and stored. (Apple says that the voice recordings and data it collects through Siri are encrypted, but it’s becoming harder and harder to trust large tech companies’ security claims.)
It doesn’t matter that Apple doesn’t plan to sell this private information to the highest bidder. The company is still gathering as much data about its customers as it can by reading their text messages, scanning their emails, and tracking their locations. That data doesn’t come with an expiration date — Apple’s plans for this year don’t matter nearly as much as its plans for the next year or even the next decade.
But even those concerns pale in comparison to Apple demonstrating its inability to keep private information secure. The company has reportedly offered personal information to the National Security Agency, recently announced that it failed to properly implement a decades-old security standard in any of its products, and has long-standing cultural issues that prevent it from tarnishing its reputation by telling the truth.
Yet the company wants even more access into your personal life and, as CarPlay shows, to use the information to create new products that could feature advertisements in the near future. Apple recently filed for a patent on an ad-serving tech that would present advertisements to you based on your mood. Creepy, yes? It’s far beyond Google introducing ads into the newest version of Google Maps. Is the potential sale of your private information worth so much? How about the ease with which hackers or government agencies could get that information from Apple, with or without its permission?
If you answer yes, your exploitation is on the left.
If your answer is no, recalibrating… recalibrating… drive straight ahead then take a U-turn.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pando]