Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for February 26th, 2020

Between 2015 and 2019, the NSA’s Domestic Phone and Text Monitoring Program Produced Exactly One Usable Lead

Charlie Savage, New York Times:

A National Security Agency system that analyzed logs of Americans’ domestic phone calls and text messages cost $100 million from 2015 to 2019, but yielded only a single significant investigation, according to a newly declassified study.

Moreover, only twice during that four-year period did the program generate unique information that the F.B.I. did not already possess, said the study, which was produced by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board and briefed to Congress on Tuesday.

“Based on one report, F.B.I. vetted an individual, but, after vetting, determined that no further action was warranted,” the report said. “The second report provided unique information about a telephone number, previously known to U.S. authorities, which led to the opening of a foreign intelligence investigation.”

The surveillance program responsible for expending an average of $50 million per lead — only one of which was useful — was created through the passage of the stupidly named USA FREEDOM Act. That act was passed after Edward Snowden leaked a trove of documents exposing the NSA’s then-secret surveillance programs affecting basically everyone around the world. It is unlikely that such a bill would have been possible without Snowden’s disclosures.

At any rate, the Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ensuring Effective Discipline Over Monitoring Act of 2015 expires in a couple of weeks, and it’s worth asking if it makes sense to reauthorize programs like these. It’s also something to keep in mind as U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr fantasizes about other ways to ruin privacy worldwide.

Why TV?

If the Apple rumour mill could somehow be harnessed to generate power, I believe our climate crisis would be solved. Alas, it is only a source of curiosity before a product announcement and, afterwards, a quickly forgotten trash heap of mixed truths and spurious guesses. But it is sometimes instructive to look back on those rumours.

You probably recall all of the times Gene Munster asked about a full Apple television on one of its quarterly conference calls. You may even remember all those rumours about an “iPod Phone”. But do you remember all the speculation that Apple would launch a streaming video service, a la Netflix and Hulu? I found articles to that effect from 2016, two from 2015, a 2014 rumour, one from 2012 — all the way back to a 2009 All Things D article which said that the company was pitching a $30 per month streaming TV service for a 2010 launch.

That, to say the least, did not happen.

The reality was far more sedate. In 2010, Apple released a rental-based set-top box that streamed movies and episodes of TV shows from iTunes rather than storing them in a local library. In 2015, it released a new set top box that relied upon apps and used Siri to search titles from multiple sources. In 2017, it released its first attempts at original programming with Planet of the Apps, for which the crowd went mild, and acquired the Carpool Karaoke series. It also bought the rights to what would become the Morning Show.

Which brings us to last year, when the company introduced Apple TV Plus. And, a year later, I still do not understand why it exists — at least, not in this guise.

This isn’t about the shows, but the service itself. Compared to its competitors, it is unique, though probably not in the way Apple might have intended, as it is just about the only streaming service that does not have a collection of library titles in addition to its original material. YouTube Premium is possibly the only other big-name streaming service to lack a library of older shows, but it has other benefits like removing ads from YouTube and unlocking an entire music streaming service. Apple TV Plus is just, like, a $5 per month subscription that gives you access to a collection of about a dozen own-brand shows, with more being added at a steady clip.

It also seems like Apple TV Plus is off to a particularly rocky start. Alison Herman of the Ringer:

In the months since, Apple has undergone a dizzying sequence of ups and downs. The ups include Little America, a charming anthology about real-life immigrants, and Visible: Out on Television, a stirring new docuseries about the history of LGBTQ representation in TV. The downs include, well, everything listed below. Apple TV+ was always bound to be a fraught enterprise, bringing a computer manufacturer into an industry outside its core skill set and awash with other well-funded bids for viewers’ attention. Its history to date has borne that difficulty out, culminating in the recently reported suspension of sprawling page-to-screen project Shantaram. This is a guide to Apple’s bumps in the road, which began well before TV+ actually made it to our living rooms.

An October 2019 story from Lesley Goldberg and Natalie Jarvey in the Hollywood Reporter paints a more complex picture about whether the behind-the-scenes difficulties of Apple’s streaming service are normal for a new entrant. But that doesn’t erase Herman’s catalogue of everything that has gone wrong so far for its handful of productions, which seems to comprise an overwhelming blend of bad luck and early business chaos.

Don’t get me wrong — I know there are lots of people who like the shows Apple has produced so far. I’m not bashing what has been released. I’m just saying that this does not seem like the service Apple had intended to launch. This is entirely speculative, but I believe those initial rumours were correct: a huge library of video from major studios, available on demand for a monthly fee, strikes me as a more straightforward, understandable, and comprehensive service offer. In short, it is more Apple-y.

So why is it not what Apple ended up shipping? Well, while Apple was attempting to lock up streaming deals with major studios — between, say, the earliest rumour of this in 2009 and 2017, when Apple released its first slate of original material — those studios were busy being acquired by ISPs, and launching their own streaming services. All of them have their own rosters of big-name library titles, all have familiar names like Disney and HBO, and the vast majority have technical infrastructure because they’re owned by ISPs. So why would they have any reason to give Apple a cut of their revenue? Without those distribution deals, the only choice Apple has left for its own entry into streaming video is to set up a studio and outbid others for media it can call its own.

I am certainly not calling this strategy a failure. That would be stupid: it is in its earliest days, some of Apple’s shows have critical buzz, and there’s so much potential for an internal studio. But there is unique risk in attaching a provocative entertainment arm to the body of a consumer goods company — one of those, of course, is the Apple’s relationship with China. Hollywood studios are choosing to censoring films to have a shot at the lucrative Chinese market. But they, unlike Apple, don’t rely on factories in the country to produce the bulk of their revenue. It is not unreasonable to speculate that this is at least one of the reasons Apple is being particularly cautious about the portrayal of China in its original programming.

It’s also a particularly strange thing for Apple to get involved with. With its music endeavours, it invited artists to record NPR-style shows featuring compositions performed for the compilation interspersed with artist commentary. But it did not start a streaming service exclusively for those compilations and nothing else. That would have been very strange. It seems nearly as strange that its big splash into streaming video is basically being a premium cable channel.

Apple has a long list of projects that are in various stages of development, any of which it can support with high budgets and marketing to “a billion pockets, y’all”. They can brute force Apple TV Plus into existence as an efficient entertainment delivery product with a low monthly price tag. I don’t think that is out of the question, and I’m certainly not writing it off. But, for what it’s worth, I see more sense in taking a page from Amazon’s book and offering it as a component of an “Apple Prime” bundle, along with News Plus. Get users to pay some amount of money every year for plenty of iCloud storage, Apple Music, and Arcade, and they get a few media discovery services thrown in as nice-to-haves. Right now, I don’t think Apple TV Plus is all that compelling on its own. While it may become more enticing in the future, the other half of that sentence could more easily change: it doesn’t have to prove its unique worth if it is part of something that feels worthy as a package.

That takes care of the question of why someone might subscribe to Apple TV Plus. But I am still not convinced that the question of why Apple is making original programming has been answered. The best I can come up with is that Apple is simply doing what big, sprawling companies often do. There’s no use pretending that Apple is ever going back to selling a quadrant of computers and a handful of other products that would, in their entirety, fit on the surface of one desk. Apple is not weeks away from bankruptcy, like it was in the 1990s; it is now one of the biggest companies to have ever existed, and it’s acting more like one. It has the freedom to experiment with new categories and weird ideas. It has the HomePod, a two year old product which is either a home-wide assistant or just a really good speaker, depending on who you ask. It has an in-house editorial staff to help decide what stories should be highlighted in its News app. It is a credit card company and a watch company. Rumour is that it will soon also be selling eyeglasses and cars.

It seems that a perfectly acceptable response to the question of why Apple has become a broadcaster is “why not?”