Thursday Threads: Mobile Device Encryption, Getty Images for Free

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Just a brief pair of threads this week. First is a look at what is happening with mobile device encryption as consumer electronics companies deal with data privacy in the post-Snowden era. There is also the predictable backlash from law enforcement organizations, and perhaps I just telegraphed how I feel on the matter. The second thread looks at how Getty Images is trying to get into distributing its content for free to get it in front of eyeballs that will end up paying for some of it.

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Apple and Android Device Data Encryption

In an open letter posted on Apple’s website last night, CEO Tim Cook said that the company’s redesigned its mobile operating system to make it impossible for Apple to unlock a user’s iPhone data. Starting with iOS8, only the user who locked their phone can unlock it.

This is huge. What it means is that even if a foreign government or a US police officer with a warrant tries to legally compel Apple to snoop on someone, they won’t. Because they can’t. It’s a digital Ulysses pact.

The next generation of Google’s Android operating system, due for release next month, will encrypt data by default for the first time, the company said Thursday, raising yet another barrier to police gaining access to the troves of personal data typically kept on smartphones.

Predictably, the US government and police officials are in the midst of a misleading PR offensive to try to scare Americans into believing encrypted cellphones are somehow a bad thing, rather than a huge victory for everyone’s privacy and security in a post-Snowden era. Leading the charge is FBI director James Comey, who spoke to reporters late last week about the supposed “dangers” of giving iPhone and Android users more control over their phones. But as usual, it’s sometimes difficult to find the truth inside government statements unless you parse their language extremely carefully. So let’s look at Comey’s statements, line-by-line.

I think it is fair to say that Apple snuck this one in on us. To the best of my knowledge, the new encrypted-by-default wasn’t something talked about in the iOS8 previews. And it looks like poor Google had to play catch-up by announcing on the same day that they were planning to do the same thing with the next version of the Android operating system. (If Apple and Google conspired to make this announcement at the same time, I haven’t heard that either.)

As you can probably tell by the quote I pulled from the third article, I think this is a good thing. I believe the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of government control over communications, and Apple/Google are right to put new user protections in place. This places the process of accessing personal information firmly back in the hands of the judiciary through court orders to compel people and companies to turn over information after probable cause has been shown. There is nothing in this change that prevents Apple/Google from turning over information stored on cloud servers to law enforcement organizations. It does end the practice of law enforcement officers randomly seizing devices and reading data off them.

As an aside, there is an on-going discussion about the use of so-called “stingray” equipment that impersonates mobile phone towers to capture mobile network data. The once-predominant 2G protocol that the stingray devices rely on was woefully insecure, and the newer 3G and 4G mobile carrier protocols are much more secure. In fact, stingray devices are known to jam 3G/4G signals to force mobile devices to use the insecure 2G protocol. Mobile carriers are planning to turn off 2G protocols in the coming years, though, which will make the current generation of stingray equipment obsolete.

Getty Offers Royalty-Free Photos

The story of the photography business over the past 20 years has been marked by two shifts: The number of photographs in circulation climbs toward infinity, and the price that each one fetches falls toward zero. As a result, Getty Images, which is in the business of selling licensing rights, is increasingly willing to distribute images in exchange for nothing more than information about the public’s photo-viewing habits.

Now Getty has just introduced a mobile app, Stream, targeted at nonprofessionals to run on Apple’s new operating system. The app lets people browse through Getty’s images, with special focus on curated collections. It’s sort of like a version of Instagram (FB) featuring only professional photographers—and without an upload option.

Commercial photography is another content industry — like mass-market and trade presses, journal publishers, newspapers, and many others — that is facing fundamental shifts in its business models. In this case, Getty is going the no-cost, embed-in-a-web-page route to getting their content to more eyeballs. They announced the Getty Images Embed program a year ago, and have now followed it up with this iOS app for browsing the collection of royalty-free images.