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Apple reaches quiet truce over iPhone privacy changes

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Enlarge / A privacy notice appears on an iPhone 12 under the new iOS 14.5.1 operating system. Developers of an application have to ask for the user’s permission to allow cross-app tracking.

Picture Alliance | Getty Images

Apple has allowed app developers to collect data from its 1 billion iPhone users for targeted advertising, in an unacknowledged shift that lets companies follow a much looser interpretation of its controversial privacy policy.

In May Apple communicated its privacy changes to the wider public, launching an advert that featured a harassed man whose daily activities were closely monitored by an ever-growing group of strangers. When his iPhone prompted him to “Ask App Not to Track,” he clicked it and they vanished. Apple’s message to potential customers was clear—if you choose an iPhone, you are choosing privacy.

But seven months later, companies including Snap and Facebook have been allowed to keep sharing user-level signals from iPhones, as long as that data is anonymised and aggregated rather than tied to specific user profiles.

For instance Snap has told investors that it plans to share data from its 306 million users—including those who ask Snap “not to track”—so advertisers can gain “a more complete, real-time view” on how ad campaigns are working. Any personally identifiable data will first be obfuscated and aggregated.

Similarly, Facebook operations chief Sheryl Sandberg said the social media group was engaged in a “multiyear effort” to rebuild ad infrastructure “using more aggregate or anonymized data”.

These companies point out that Apple has told developers they “may not derive data from a device for the purpose of uniquely identifying it.” This means they can observe “signals” from an iPhone at a group level, enabling ads that can still be tailored to “cohorts” aligning with certain behavior but not associated with unique IDs.

This type of tracking is becoming the norm. Oren Kaniel, the chief executive of AppsFlyer, a mobile attribution platform that works with app developers, said that when his company introduced such a “privacy-centric” tool based on aggregated measurement in July 2020, “the level of pushback that we received from the entire ecosystem was huge.”

But now such aggregated solutions are the default for 95 percent of his clients. “The market changed their minds in a radical way,” he said.

It is not clear whether Apple has actually blessed these solutions. Apple declined to answer specific questions for this article but described privacy as its North Star, implying it was setting a general destination rather than defining a narrow pathway for developers.

Cory Munchbach, chief operating officer at customer data platform BlueConic, said Apple had to stand back from a strict reading of its rules because the disruption to the mobile ads ecosystem would be too great.

“Apple can’t put themselves in a situation where they are basically gutting their top-performing apps from a user-consumption perspective,” she said. “That would ultimately hurt iOS.”

For anyone interpreting Apple’s rules strictly, these solutions break the privacy rules set out to iOS users.

Lockdown Privacy, an app that blocks ad trackers, has called Apple’s policy “functionally useless in stopping third-party tracking.” It performed a variety of tests on top apps and observed that personal data and device information is still “being sent to trackers in almost all cases.”

But the companies aggregating user-level data said the reason apps continue to “leak” information such as a user’s IP address and location was simply because some require such information to function. Advertisers must know certain things such as the user’s language or the device screen size, otherwise the app experience would be awful.

The risk is that by allowing user-level data to be used by opaque third parties so long as they promise not to abuse it, Apple is in effect trusting the very same groups that chief executive Tim Cook has lambasted as “hucksters just looking to make a quick buck.”

Companies will pledge that they only look at user-level data once it has been anonymized, but without access to the data or algorithms working behind the scenes, users won’t really know if their data privacy has been preserved, said Munchbach.

“If historical precedent in adtech holds, those black boxes hide a lot of sins,” she said. “It’s not unreasonable to assume it leaves a lot to be desired.”

© 2021 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved Not to be redistributed, copied, or modified in any way.

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This 22-year-old builds chips in his parents’ garage

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Enlarge / Sam Zeloof completed this homemade computer chip with 1,200 transistors, seen under a magnifying glass, in August 2021.

Sam Kang

In August, chipmaker Intel revealed new details about its plan to build a “mega-fab” on US soil, a $100 billion factory where 10,000 workers will make a new generation of powerful processors studded with billions of transistors. The same month, 22-year-old Sam Zeloof announced his own semiconductor milestone. It was achieved alone in his family’s New Jersey garage, about 30 miles from where the first transistor was made at Bell Labs in 1947.

With a collection of salvaged and homemade equipment, Zeloof produced a chip with 1,200 transistors. He had sliced up wafers of silicon, patterned them with microscopic designs using ultraviolet light, and dunked them in acid by hand, documenting the process on YouTube and his blog. “Maybe it’s overconfidence, but I have a mentality that another human figured it out, so I can too, even if maybe it takes me longer,” he says.

Zeloof’s chip was his second. He made the first, much smaller one as a high school senior in 2018; he started making individual transistors a year before that. His chips lag Intel’s by technological eons, but Zeloof argues only half-jokingly that he’s making faster progress than the semiconductor industry did in its early days. His second chip has 200 times as many transistors as his first, a growth rate outpacing Moore’s law, the rule of thumb coined by an Intel cofounder that says the number of transistors on a chip doubles roughly every two years.

Zeloof now hopes to match the scale of Intel’s breakthrough 4004 chip from 1971, the first commercial microprocessor, which had 2,300 transistors and was used in calculators and other business machines. In December, he started work on an interim circuit design that can perform simple addition.

Zeloof says making it easier to tinker with semiconductors would foster new ideas in tech.
Enlarge / Zeloof says making it easier to tinker with semiconductors would foster new ideas in tech.

Sam Kang

Outside Zeloof’s garage, the pandemic has triggered a global semiconductor shortage, hobbling supplies of products from cars to game consoles. That’s inspired new interest from policymakers in rebuilding the US capacity to produce its own computer chips, after decades of offshoring.

Garage-built chips aren’t about to power your PlayStation, but Zeloof says his unusual hobby has convinced him that society would benefit from chipmaking being more accessible to inventors without multimillion-dollar budgets. “That really high barrier to entry will make you super risk-averse, and that’s bad for innovation,” Zeloof says.

Zeloof started down the path to making his own chips as a high school junior, in 2016. He was impressed by YouTube videos from inventor and entrepreneur Jeri Ellsworth in which she made her own, thumb-sized transistors, in a process that included templates cut from vinyl decals and a bottle of rust stain remover. Zeloof set out to replicate Ellsworth’s project and take what to him seemed a logical next step: going from lone transistors to integrated circuits, a jump that historically took about a decade. “He took it a quantum leap further,” says Ellsworth, now CEO of an augmented-reality startup called Tilt Five. “There’s tremendous value in reminding the world that these industries that seem so far out of reach started somewhere more modest, and you can do that yourself.”

Computer chip fabrication is sometimes described as the world’s most difficult and precise manufacturing process. When Zeloof started blogging about his goals for the project, some industry experts emailed to tell him it was impossible. “The reason for doing it was honestly because I thought it would be funny,” he says. “I wanted to make a statement that we should be more careful when we hear that something’s impossible.”

Zeloof’s family was supportive but also cautious. His father asked a semiconductor engineer he knew to offer some safety advice. “My first reaction was that you couldn’t do it. This is a garage,” says Mark Rothman, who has spent 40 years in chip engineering and now works at a company making technology for OLED screens. Rothman’s initial reaction softened as he saw Zeloof’s progress. “He has done things I would never have thought people could do.”

Zeloof’s project involves history as well as engineering. Modern chip fabrication takes place in facilities whose expensive HVAC systems remove every trace of dust that might trouble their billions of dollars of machinery. Zeloof couldn’t match those techniques, so he read patents and textbooks from the 1960s and ’70s, when engineers at pioneering companies like Fairchild Semiconductor made chips at ordinary workbenches. “They describe methods using X-Acto blades and tape and a few beakers, not ‘We have this $10 million machine the size of a room,’” Zeloof says.

Zeloof had to stock his lab with vintage equipment too. On eBay and other auction sites he found a ready supply of bargain chip gear from the 1970s and ’80s that once belonged to since-shuttered Californian tech companies. Much of the equipment required fixing, but old machines are easier to tinker with than modern lab machinery. One of Zeloof’s best finds was a broken electron microscope that cost $250,000 in the early ’90s; he bought it for $1,000 and repaired it. He uses it to inspect his chips for flaws, as well as the nanostructures on butterfly wings.

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Google Labs starts up a blockchain division

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Here’s a fun new report from Bloomberg: Google is forming a blockchain division. The news comes hot on the heels of a Bloomberg report from yesterday that quoted Google’s president of commerce as saying, “Crypto is something we pay a lot of attention to.” Web3 is apparently becoming a thing at Google.

Shivakumar Venkataraman, a longtime Googler from the advertising division, is running the blockchain group, which lives under the nascent “Google Labs” division that was started about three months ago. Labs is home to “high-potential, long-term projects,” basically making it the new Google X division (X was turned into a less-Google-focused Alphabet division in 2016). Bavor used to be vice president of virtual reality, and Labs contains all of those VR and augmented reality projects, like the “Project Starline” 3D video booth and Google’s AR goggles.

Just like “algorithms,” “AI,” and “5G,” “blockchain” is often used as the go-to buzzword for rudderless tech executives hoping to hype up investors or consumers. A blockchain is really just a distributed, P2P database, sort of like if BitTorrent hosted a database instead of pirated movies and Linux ISOs. The database is chopped up into blocks, and each new block contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block, forming a chain of records that protect each other against alterations. On a traditional database, transactions are verified by the database owner, but on a blockchain, nobody owns the database, so each transaction needs to be verified by many computers. This is the big downside of blockchains: everyone’s constant transaction verifications use a massive amount of electricity and computing power.

The decentralized nature of blockchains means nobody can take down your database, which cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin leverage to make a wealth transaction system that no government controls. But it’s not always clear why you would add all the complication and energy usage of a blockchain to your project.

Not much is known about the group, except that it is focused on “blockchain and other next-gen distributed computing and data storage technologies.” Google’s growth into a web giant has made it a pioneer in distributed computing and database development, so maybe it could make some noise in this area as well.

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The reviews are in: AMD’s mining-averse RX 6500 XT also isn’t great at gaming

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Enlarge / The Sapphire AMD Radeon RX 6500 XT, yet another GPU that you probably won’t be able to buy. (credit: Sapphire)

When AMD announced its budget-friendly RX 6500 XT graphics card at CES early this month, the company suggested that the product had been designed with limitations that would make it unappealing to the cryptocurrency miners who have been exacerbating the ongoing GPU shortage for over a year now. But now that reviews of the card have started to hit, it’s clear that its gaming performance is the collateral damage of those limitations.

Reviews from Tom’s Hardware, PCGamer, TechSpot, Gamers Nexus, and a litany of other PC gaming YouTube channels are unanimous: The RX 6500 XT is frequently outperformed by previous-generations graphics cards, and it comes with other caveats beyond performance that limit its appeal even further. (Ars hasn’t been provided with a review unit.)

The core of the problem is a 64-bit memory interface that limits the amount of memory bandwidth the card has to work with. Plus, the card has only 4GB of RAM, which is beginning to be a limiting factor in modern games, especially at resolutions above 1080p. Many tests saw the RX 6500 XT outperformed by the 8GB variant of the RX 5500 XT, which launched at the tail end of 2019 for the same $199 (and you could actually find and buy it for that price).

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