When we phone home, we reach out to the people that we love, we check on their welfare and reassure them that we're okay. But when computers phone home, it represents an act of betrayal so treacherous as to make us gasp in astonishment.
Seriously? Software, secretly connecting to the internet and informing its creators what we're doing? Why is that necessary? This question has been repeatedly fired at Apple this week, with the discovery that search tools embedded within Yosemite, its new operating system, send search terms back to Apple headquarters. Such is our sensitivity to stories of corporate spying that the reaction was intense and indignant. Why should a technology firm need to know of my interest in Persian rugs, stomach pains or Gemma Arterton?
It's worth stepping back and assessing exactly what's going on, here.
Spotlight, OS X's search feature, used to help you find stuff on your computer. Spotlight Suggestions, new in Yosemite, adds search results from across the internet (supplied by Bing, Microsoft's search engine) to your Spotlight searches, and indeed your searches using Safari, OS X's web browser. It doesn't take a degree in computer science to know that a search engine can't give you what you want unless you tell it, so your search terms, along with your approximate location, are sent whizzing to Cupertino. "But hang on," people are asking, "why is that stuff not sent straight to Bing? Why does Apple have to know?" The answer, says Apple, is to improve Apple products, particularly Spotlight Suggestions itself.
This excuse cuts no ice with the geeks who uncovered the "phoning home" scandal – although it couldn't have taken too much uncovering, given that Yosemite informs you precisely what's going on when you do a Spotlight search, and how to turn it off if you don't like it.
For the geeks, it's the principle of the thing, although said principles tend largely to be constructed in their own minds. Software developers need to improve their products, and Apple's primary concern here is:
"Did the search work?" That's all. Not your sexual preferences or your health concerns. Simply whether the computer helped you. It's easy for computer literate people to scoff, but responsive, intuitive software is not produced by magic. It needs our input.
Yes, we should demand that all of that input be anonymised, and not used to build a profile of our activity, but Apple, which is waving the privacy card particularly furiously at the moment – has given that reassurance. It's a case of double standards; people expressing horror at this Apple news story will happily whang search terms all day long at Google, a company whose business is our data. Apple's business is selling products that feel intuitive to use; to expose its attempts to make that happen as a breach of customer trust seems to be missing the point.
Yes, it's true that Apple could have handled this better; the way that it's implemented Spotlight Suggestions means that someone who has explicitly chosen to search the web using the non-tracking search engine, DuckDuckGo, will still leak their search terms to corporate America. But in a week where the supposedly anonymous social network, Whisper, has been exposed as anything but, with our secrets and our locations stored and analysed by the company, Apple's attempt to merely improve its own operating system seems incredibly benign by comparison.Reuse content