If you grew up with the slow but predictable schedule of American elections, the abruptness with which a British prime minister can prorogue Parliament and hit the campaign trail is startling. Among the pieces of legislation that fell by the wayside this time is the Data Protection and Digital Information bill, which had reached the House of Lords for scrutiny. The bill had many problems. This was the bill that proposed to give the Department of Work and Pensions the right to inspect the bank accounts and financial assets of anyone receiving any government benefits and undermined aspects of the adequacy agreement that allows UK companies to exchange data with businesses in the EU.

Less famously, it also includes the legislative underpinnings for a trust framework for digital verification. On Monday, at a UCL’s conference on crime science, Sandra Peaston, director of research and development at the fraud prevention organization Cifas, outlined how all this is intended to work and asked some pertinent questions. Among them: whether the new regulator will have enough teeth; whether the certification process is strong enough for (for example) mortgage lenders; and how we know how good the relevant algorithm is at identifying deepfakes.

Overall, I think we should be extremely grateful this bill wasn’t rushed through. Quite apart from the digital rights aspects, the framework for digital identity really needs to be right; there’s just too much risk in getting it wrong.


At Bloomberg, Mark Gurman reports that Apple’s arrangement with OpenAI to integrate ChatGPT into the iPhone, iPad, and Mac does not involve Apple paying any money. Instead, Gurman cites unidentified sources to the effect that “Apple believes pushing OpenAI’s brand and technology to hundreds of millions of its devices is of equal or greater value than monetary payments.”

We’ve come across this kind of claim before in arguments between telcos and Internet companies like Netflix or between cable companies and rights holders. The underlying question is who brings more value to the arrangement, or who owns the audience. I can’t help feeling suspicious that this will not end well for users. It generally doesn’t.


Microsoft is on a roll. First there was the Recall debacle. Now come accusations by a former employee that it ignored a reported security flaw in order to win a large government contract, as Renee Dudley and Doris Burke report at Pro Publica. Result: the Russian Solarwinds cyberattack on numerous US government departments and agencies, including the National Nuclear Security Administration.

This sounds like a variant of Cory Doctorow’s enshittification at the enterprise level (see also: Boeing). They don’t have to be monopolies: these organizations’ evolving culture has let business managers override safety and security engineers. This is how Challenger blew up in 1986.

Boeing is too big and too lacking in competition to be allowed to fail entirely; it will have to find a way back. Microsoft has a lot of customer lock-in. Is it too big to fail?


I can’t help feeling a little sad at the news that Raspberry Pi has had an IPO. I see no reason why it shouldn’t be successful as a commercial enterprise, but its values will inevitably change over time. CEO Eben Upton swears they won’t, but he won’t be CEO forever, as even he admits. But: Raspberry Pi could become the “unicorn” Americans keep saying Europe doesn’t have.


At that same UCL event, I finally heard someone say something positive about AI – for a meaning of “AI” that *isn’t* chatbots. Sarah Lawson, the university’s chief information security officer, said that “AI and machine learning have really changed the game” when it comes to detecting email spam, which remains the biggest vector for attacks. Dealing with the 2% that evades the filters is still a big job, as it leaves 6,000 emails a week hitting people’s inboxes – but she’ll take it. We really need to be more specific when we say “AI” about what kind of system we mean; success at spam filtering has nothing to say about getting accurate information out of a large language model.


Finally, I was highly amused this week when long-time security guy Nick Selby, posted on Mastodon about a long-forgotten incident from 1999 in which I disparaged the sort of technology Apple announced this week that’s supposed to organize your life for you – tell you when it’s time to leave for things based on the traffic, juggle meetings and children’s violin recitals, that sort of thing. Selby felt I was ahead of my time because “it was stupid then and is stupid now because even if it works the cost is insane and the benefit really, really dodgy”,

One of the long-running divides in computing is between the folks who want computers to behave predictably and those who want computers to learn from our behavior what’s wanted and do that without intervention. Right now, the latter is in ascendance. Few of us seem to want the “AI features” being foisted on us. But only a small percentage of mainstream users turn off defaults (a friend was recently surprised to learn you can use the history menu to reopen a closed browser tab). So: soon those “AI features” will be everywhere, pointlessly and extravagantly consuming energy, water, and human patience. How you use information technology used to be a choice. Now, it feels like we’re hostages.

Illustrations: Raspberry Pi: the little computer that could (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Microsoft can remember it for you wholesale

A new theory: somewhere in the Silicon Valley universe there’s a cadre of techies who have eidetic memories and they’re feeling them start to slip. Panic time.

That’s my best explanation for Microsoft’s latest wheeze, a new feature for its Copilot assistant that will take what’s variously called a “snapshot” or a “screenshot” of your computer (all three monitors?) every five seconds and store it for future reference. Microsoft hasn’t explained much about Recall’s inner technical workings, but according to the announcement, the data will be stored locally and will be searchable via semantic associations and some sort of “AI”. Microsoft also says the data will not be used to train AI models.

The general anger and dismay at this plan brings back, almost nostalgically, memories of the 1990s, when Microsoft was near-universally hated as the evil monopolist dominating computing. In 2008, when Google was ten years old, a BBC presenter asked me if I thought Google would ever be hated as much as Microsoft was (not then, no). In 2012, veteran journalist Charles Arthur published the book Digital Wars about how Microsoft had stagnated and lost its lead. And then suddenly, in the last few years, it’s back on top.

Possibilities occur that Microsoft doesn’t mention. For example: could software might be embedded into Windows to draw inferences from the data Recall saves? And could those inferences be forwarded to the company or used to target you with ads? That seems like a far more efficient way to invade users’ privacy than copying the data itself, if that’s what the company ultimately wants to do.

Lots of things on our computers already retain a “memory” of what we’ve been doing. Operating systems generate logs to help debug problems. Word processors retain a changelog, which powers the ability to undo mistakes. Web browsers have user-configurable histories; email software has archives; media players retain playlists. All of those are useful – but part of that usefulness is that they are contextual, limited, and either easily terminated by closing the relevant application or relatively easily edited to remove items that shouldn’t be kept.

It’s hard for almost everyone who isn’t Microsoft to understand the point of keeping everything by default. It seems like a feature only developers could love. I certainly would like Windows to be better at searching for stored files or my (Firefox) browser to be better at reloading that article I was reading yesterday. I have even longed for a personal version of Vannevar Bush’s Memex. As part of that, I might welcome a feature that let me hit a button to record the last five useful minutes of a meeting, or save a social media post to a local archive. But the key to that sort of memory expansion is curation, not remembering everything promiscuously. For most people, selective forgetting is how we survive the torrents of irrelevance hurled at us every day.

What Recall sounds most like is the lifelog science fiction writer Charlie Stross imagined in 2007 might be our future. Plummeting storage costs and expanding capacity, he reasoned, would make it possible to store *everything* in your pocket. Even then, there were (a very few) people doing that sort of thing, most notably Steve Mann, a University of Toronto professor who started wearing devices to comprhensively capture his life as a 1990s graduate student. Over the years, Mann has shrunk his personal gadget array from a laptop and peripherals to glasses and pocket devices. Many more people capture their surroundings now – but they do it on their phones. If Apple or Google were proposing a Recall feature for iOS or Android, the idea would seem a lot less weird.

The real issue is that there are many people who would like to be able to know what somone *else* has been doing on their computer at all times. Helicopter parents. Schools and teachers under government compulsion (see for example Prevent (PDF)). Employers. Border guards. Corporate spies. The Department of Work and Pensions. Authoritarian governments. Law enforcement and security agencies. Criminals. Domestic abusers… So developing any feature like this must include considering how to protect it against these threats. This does not appear to have happened.

Many others have written about the privacy issues in all this – the UK’s Information Commission’s Office is already investigating. At The Register, Richard Speed does a particularly good job of looking at some of the fine details. On Mastodon, Kevin Beaumont says inspection of the Copilot+ software suggests that Recall stores the text it extracts from all those snapshots into an easily copiable SQlite database.

But there’s still more. The kind of archive Recall appears to construct can teach an attacker how the target thinks: not just what passwords they choose but how they devise them.Those patterns can be highly valuable. Granted, few targets are worth that level of attention, but it happens, as Peter Davies, a technical director at eThales, has often warned.

Recall is not the only move – see also flawed-AI-with-everything – that suggests that the computer industry, like some politicians and governments, is badly losing touch with the public. Increasingly, what they want to do seems unrelated to what the rest of us want. If they think things like Recall are a good idea they need to read more Philip K. Dick. And then don’t invent the Torment Nexus.

Illustrations: Arnold Schwarzenegger seeking better memories in the 1990 film Total Recall.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon..

Game of carrots

The big news of the week has been the result of the Epic Games v. Google antitrust trial. A California jury took four hours to agree with Epic that Google had illegally tied together its Play Store and billing service, so that app makers could only use the Play Store to distribute their apps if they also used Google’s service for billing, giving Google a 30% commission. Sort of like, I own half the roads in this town, and if you want to sell anything to my road users you have to have a store in my mall and pay me a third of your sales revenue, and if you don’t like it, tough, because you can’t reach my road users any other way. Meanwhile, the owner of the other half of the town’s roads is doing exactly the same thing, so you can’t win.

At his BIG Substack, antitrust specialist Matt Stoller, who has been following the trial closely, gloats, “the breakup of Big Tech begins”. Maybe not so fast: Epic lost its similar case against Apple. Both of these cases are subject to appeal. Stoller suggests, however, that the latest judgment will carry more weight because it came from a jury of ordinary citizens rather than, as in the Apple case, a single judge. Stoller believes the precedent set by a jury trial is harder to ignore in future cases.

At The Verge, Sean Hollister, who has been covering the trial in detail, offers a summary of 20 key points he felt the trial established. Written before the verdict, Hollister’s assessment of Epic’s chances proved correct.

Even if the judgment is upheld in the higher courts, it will be a while before users see any effects. But: even if the judgment is overturned in the higher courts, my guess is that the technology companies will begin to change their behavior at least a bit, in self-defense. The real question is, what changes will benefit us, the people whose lives are increasingly dominated by these phones?

I personally would like it to be much easier to use an Android phone without ever creating a Google account, and to be confident that the phone isn’t sending masses of tracking data to either Google or the phone’s manufacturer.

But…I would still like to be able to download the apps I want from a source I can trust. I care less about who provides the source than I do about what data they collect about me and the cost.

I want that source to be easy to access, easy to use, and well-stocked, defining “well-stocked” as “has the apps I want” (which, granted, is a short list). The nearest analogy that springs to mind is TV channels. You don’t really care what channel the show you want to watch is on; you just want to be able to watch the show without too much hassle. If there weren’t so many rights holders running their own streaming services, the most sensible business logic would be for every show to be on every service. Then instead of competing on their catalogues, the services would be competing on privacy, or interface design, or price. Why shouldn’t we have independent app stores like that?

Mobile phones have always been more tightly controlled than the world of desktop computing, largely because they grew out of the tightly controlled telecommunications world. Desktop computing, like the Internet, served first the needs of the military and academic research, and they remain largely open even when they’re made by the same companies who make mobile phone operating systems. Desktop systems also developed at a time when American antitrust law still sought to increase competition.

It did not stay that way. As current FTC chair Lina Khan made her name pointing out in 2017, antitrust thinking for the last several decades has been limited to measuring consumer prices. The last big US antitrust case to focus on market effects was Microsoft, back in 1995. In the years since, it’s been left to the EU to act as the world’s antitrust enforcer. Against Google, the EU has filed three cases since 2010: over Shopping (Google was found guilty in 2017 and fined €2.4 billion, upheld on appeal in 2021); Android, over Google apps and the Play Store (Google was found guilty in 2018 and fined €4.3 billion and required to change some of its practices); and AdSense (fined €1.49 billion in 2019). But fines – even if the billions eventually add up to real money – don’t matter enough to companies with revenues the size of Google’s. Being ordered to restructure its app store might.

At the New York Times, Steve Lohr compares the Microsoft and Epic v Google cases. Microsoft used its contracts with PC makers to prevent them from preinstalling its main web browser rival, Netscape, in order to own users’ path into the accelerating digital economy. Google’s contracts instead paid Apple, Samsung, Mozilla, and others to favor it on their systems – “carrots instead of sticks,” NYU law professor Harry First told Lohr.

The best thing about all this is that the Epic jury was not dazzled by the incomprehensibility effect of new technology. Principles are coming back into focus. Tying – leveraging your control over one market in order to dominate another – is no different if you say it in app stores than if you say it in gas stations or movie theaters.

Illustrations: “The kind of anti-trust legislation that is needed”, by J.S. Pughe (via Library of Congress).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon