Month: August 2020

Alexandra Posadzki, the Globe and Mail:

The federal cabinet says the new, lower rates that Canada’s large phone and cable companies were ordered to charge smaller internet providers for access to their networks could stifle investment in telecom infrastructure.

However, cabinet declined to overturn the August, 2019, ruling that reduced wholesale broadband rates or send it back to Canada’s telecom regulator for reconsideration, saying it would be premature to do so because the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is already in the midst of reviewing its decision.

“We will continue to monitor the CRTC proceedings closely,” Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, said in a statement Saturday.

Canadian broadband rates are already among the world’s highest, and an increase in wholesale fees will only cement the exploitative reputation of our ISPs.

Kyle Orland, Ars Technica:

Most if not all of the complaints Epic makes against Apple and Google seem to apply to Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo in the console space as well. All three console makers also take a 30-percent cut of all microtransaction sales on their platforms, for example.

This DLC fee represents a big chunk of those console makers’ revenues, too. “Add-on content” was a full 41 percent of Sony’s Game and Network revenue in the latest completed fiscal quarter. Microsoft saw a 39-percent increase in gaming revenue the quarter after Fortnite was released, too, coyly attributing the bump to “third-party title strength.” And the Switch saw similar post-Fortnite digital revenue increases after Nintendo announced that fully half of all Switch owners had downloaded Fortnite.

On mobile platforms, Epic is calling the same kind of 30-percent fee “exorbitant” and says it wants to offer a more direct payment solution so it can “pass along the savings to players.” On consoles, though, Epic happily introduced a permanent 20-percent discount on all microtransaction purchases, despite there being no sign that the console makers have changed their fee structure.

My mistake was thinking that Epic Games sued Apple and Google for rational reasons. That simply is not the case.

Orland also points to a two year old article by James Batchelor at, quoting Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney:

“The 30 per cent store tax is a high cost in a world where game developers’ 70 per cent must cover all the cost of developing, operating, and supporting their games,” he explains.

“There’s a rationale for this on console where there’s enormous investment in hardware, often sold below cost, and marketing campaigns in broad partnership with publishers. But on open platforms, 30 per cent is disproportionate to the cost of the services these stores perform, such as payment processing, download bandwidth, and customer service.”

Tim Sweeney on Twitter:

At the most basic level, we’re fighting for the freedom of people who bought smartphones to install apps from sources of their choosing, the freedom for creators of apps to distribute them as they choose, and the freedom of both groups to do business directly.

Why only smartphones; why not game consoles? If Sweeney truly believes in entirely open distribution of apps across platforms, why not start with the even more closed distribution systems from Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft?

Perhaps there is a difference between app distribution expectations on game consoles and smartphones. In my mind, it feels like there ought to be. But I am having a difficult time articulating why that ought to be so. Perhaps it is as simple as the smartphone being a convergence device, while a game console is intended primarily as a single-purpose appliance.

Jake Lahut, Business Insider:

The Biden campaign is rolling out two new fonts heading into the November election.

“Decimal” and “Mercury” will be tasked with evoking the 2020 presumptive Democratic nominee’s campaign ethos of “the battle for the soul of the nation,” Biden for Presiden Senior Creative Adviser Robyn Kanner told Insider.

The pair of fonts come from Hoefler & Co., a legendary typeface company behind the lettering seen in iconic American brands, such as Rolling Stone, Twitter, Tiffany & Co., the Guggenheim Museum, Condé Nast, and Nike.

There are a few more details on the Hoefler & Co. website.

Jonathan Hoefler:

I can’t remember an election in which so much attention (and speculation) has surrounded the choice of a running mate, nor having such a large field of eminently qualified candidates to choose from. A consequential decision at an unpredictable time, conducted under absolute secrecy, poses an interesting dilemma to the typographer: how do you create a logo without knowing for certain what the words will say? Logos, after all, are meaningfully informed by the shapes of their letters, and a logo designed for an EISENHOWER will hardly work for a TAFT. The solution, naturally, involves the absurd application of brute force: you just design all the logos you can think of, based on whatever public information you can gather. Every credible suggestion spotted in an op-ed was added to the list that we designers maintained, and not once did the campaign even hint at a preference for one name over another.

Last year, when there was a field of many possible Democrats vying for the 2020 nomination, Matthew Butterick reviewed their campaign typography and websites:

Presidential-campaign typography took a big step up in 2008, when Barack Obama adopted the then-new Gotham font for his campaign. (Though for his re-election campaign, he had serifs added.) This led to the rise of Gotham throughout the United States. But especially in political campaigns, where the geometric sans has become typographic shorthand for #winning.

Interestingly, one of Obama’s few bipartisan successes was inducing Republicans to use Gotham too: in 2016, it was chosen by Ted Cruz and Donald Trump (well, the no-cost Gotham knockoff Montserrat).

This is an admittedly silly little thing, but one of the casualties of the Trump administration has been the typography used on U.S. government websites. The Obama administration stuck with Hoefler & Co. beyond its use of Gotham; the White House website, for example, was typeset in Hoefler Text and Whitney. Those well-crafted faces have been replaced with free Google Fonts like Merriweather, Source Sans Pro, and the aforementioned Montserrat.

In the grand scheme of things, this is a silly thing to be writing about. Maybe it’s something you appreciate — cutting out a few hundred bucks a month in web font costs is, perhaps, a symbol of reducing tax expenditures. But it is also evocative of the kind of Overstock-grade Louis XIV furniture that dominates this president’s New York apartment: it is the impression of class, quality, and style, as filtered through the eyes of someone without any of those things.

Anyway, I intended for this post to be a bit of light Friday fare. The Biden-Harris campaign’s choice of Mercury is clean and versatile, but I especially appreciate the choice of Decimal. It has a pleasantly vintage kind of feel to it — Kanner said that it is based on something you would see on a watch. It’s kind of halfway between Gotham and Microgamma, though, and reminds me a little of a Cars or Miles Davis album cover. It’s confident, tastefully assertive, and distinctive.

The drama that unfolded today calls for popcorn; it, and the past few weeks, have exhausted me completely.

Anyway, here’s a Marc Maron joke: you know those kernels at the bottom of the bag that haven’t popped yet? Those are the ones with integrity.

I expected Google to follow Apple in pulling Fortnite from the Play Store and, sure enough, that was the case. What I did not anticipate was a lawsuit against Google, given that Android allows users to install apps through mechanisms other than the Play Store. But, as with Apple, Epic Games is now suing Google.

Russell Brandom, the Verge:

For years, Fortnite for Android was primarily available through this kind of sideloading. The app finally arrived on the Google Play Store in April, overcoming longstanding concerns over the Play Store policy of taking 30 percent of all in-app purchases. “After 18 months of operating Fortnite on Android outside of the Google Play Store, we’ve come to a basic realization,” the company said at the time, “Google puts software downloadable outside of Google Play at a disadvantage.”

From the suit (PDF):

Epic’s experience with one OEM, OnePlus, is illustrative. Epic struck a deal with OnePlus to make Epic games available on its phones through an Epic Games app. The Epic Games app would have allowed users to seamlessly install and update Epic games, including Fortnite, without obstacles imposed by Google’s Android OS. But Google forced OnePlus to renege on the deal, citing Google’s “particular[] concern” about Epic having the ability to install and update mobile games while “bypassing the Google Play Store”.

Another OEM, LG, told Epic that its contract with Google did not allow it to enable the direct distribution of apps, and that the OEM could not offer any functionality that would install and update Epic games except through the Google Play Store.

Pretty serious allegations against a company that promotes Android as being open and usable by any company that wants to build a phone. This whole saga has been well played by Epic Games — the story is now Apple and Google have kicked one of the world’s most popular games off their platforms.

I have not seen a similar suit filed against Sony or Microsoft regarding Fortnite on PlayStation or Xbox. Is that because it is harder to make a legal case that game consoles should be treated more like general purpose computers and less like appliances, or is it because the commission is lower on those consoles? The pricing of Fortnite’s “V-Bucks” suggests the latter.

The question of consoles and computers has been a topic of discussion on Dithering for the past week, ever since Apple provided that cryptic statement about why it wasn’t allowing Google Stadia and Xbox Game Pass into the App Store. I certainly fall on the side of considering smartphones more as general purpose computers, but the arguments Gruber has been setting up have got me thinking harder about it. It is a difficult line to draw: why should a PlayStation not be considered a computer like the one at your desk? But, also, why should an iPhone be thought of as closer to a Mac than an Apple Watch? I am not arguing that it should not — I fully believe that there are differences between all of these devices — but I have not seen a clear articulation for why that is.

Update: With my best Columbo impression, just one more thought on these two lawsuits: while there are a litany of complaints, it seems telling that both highlight the inability for Epic Games to set up its own app marketplace.

Epic Games:

Today, we’re also introducing a new way to pay on iOS and Android: Epic direct payment. When you choose to use Epic direct payments, you save up to 20% as Epic passes along payment processing savings to you.

Currently, when using Apple and Google payment options, Apple and Google collect a 30% fee, and the up to 20% price drop does not apply. If Apple or Google lower their fees on payments in the future, Epic will pass along the savings to you.

Nick Statt, the Verge:

Apple has removed Epic Games’ battle royale Fortnite from the App Store after the developer on Thursday implemented its own in-app payment system that bypassed Apple’s standard 30 percent fee. The decision marks a significant escalation in the feud between Epic and one of the most popular mobile app stores in the US, and it comes at an especially fraught time for Apple as the iPhone maker navigates antitrust concerns over its operation of its mobile marketplace and the rules it imposes on certain developers.

This is not a “significant escalation” as much as it is a significant instigation: Epic Games knew that trying to bypass Apple’s in-app payment mechanism was risky because it is not permitted, it did it anyway, and Apple responded by removing the app. You may believe, as I do, that the App Store policies need changing and that a 30% commission is probably outdated, but this is an entirely predictable consequence.

I don’t know that anything will come of this, specifically. Fortnite will probably be back in the App Store within a matter of days, sans in-app purchase bypass, and the App Store will probably keep chugging along. But something must give way when developers big and small are loudly making their dissatisfaction known.

The pot is on the stove and it is heating up. Anyone want extra butter on their popcorn?

Update: That was fast — Epic Games is suing Apple (PDF). I can’t think of another lawsuit that was marketed so well.

Fanny Potkin, Reuters:

Chinese tech giant ByteDance censored content it perceived as critical of the Chinese government on its news aggregator app in Indonesia from 2018 to mid-2020, six people with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

The sources said that local moderators were instructed by a team from ByteDance’s Beijing headquarters to delete articles seen as “negative” about Chinese authorities on the Baca Berita (BaBe) app.

In a statement to Reuters, BaBe said it disagreed with the claims and that it moderates content according to its community guidelines and in line with Indonesia’s local laws.

This is the kind of soft power play that is at least as concerning to me on a global scale as TikTok’s data collection, if not more so.

Mark Gurman, Bloomberg:

Apple Inc. is readying a series of bundles that will let customers subscribe to several of the company’s digital services at a lower monthly price, according to people with knowledge of the effort.

The bundles, dubbed “Apple One” inside the Cupertino, California-based technology giant, are planned to launch as early as October alongside the next iPhone line, the people said. The bundles are designed to encourage customers to subscribe to more Apple services, which will generate more recurring revenue.

Giving the people what they want. This is surely an easier sell than asking users to pay a standalone fee for Apple News Plus, for example. But how does one convince someone to buy a bundle when they may only want one or two standalone services? It seems to me that either the bundle is dramatically less expensive — which has the side effect of changing the perceived value of each service individually — or it is made more compelling by offering exclusive stuff.

The company is also developing a new subscription for virtual fitness classes that can be used via an app for the iPhone, iPad and Apple TV, the people said. That service will be offered in a higher-end bundle with the rest of Apple’s services. Codenamed “Seymour,” the workout package would rival virtual classes offered by companies including Peloton Interactive Inc. and Nike Inc., according to the people.

Peloton shares slipped 4.7% in early trading Thursday after the announcement. Apple was up less than 1%.

First of all, this Gurman scoop doesn’t constitute an “announcement”.

Second, it sure doesn’t look great for this expansion of Apple’s services to be rumoured just weeks after companies like Airbnb and ClassPass complained about how they were now being asked for App Store commission after their classes went virtual. I am not saying it is not right for Apple — it charges a thirty percent commission on digital goods used within the app, so its demand here is entirely consistent with precedent. I am also not saying that this would be illegal or anticompetitive. I am only saying that it does not look great, and that regulators are likely to take notice.

Alex Kantrowitz:

Facebook is making people pause before they share links with Covid-19 related information.

The company is adding an interstitial that will make people stop and review context about links with Covid-19 information before they share it. The move adds much-needed friction into a process that has helped Covid-19 misinformation go viral on Facebook.

This is a very good idea and something that I think could be expanded to all categories of news, not just items related to covid-19. I would like to see more platforms copy ideas like these. Even minor increases in friction can help slow the spread of outdated and potentially flawed material.

Matt Webb, via Cory Doctorow:

There’s a better way to read websites and it’s called web feeds a.k.a RSS. But web feeds are hard to get into for new users, so I decided to do something about it.

I posted about suggested improvements to RSS the other day and top of my list was onboarding: If you don’t know what RSS is, it’s really hard to start using it. This is because, unlike a social media platform, it doesn’t have a homepage. Nobody owns it. It’s nobody’s job to explain it. I’d like to see a website … which explains RSS, feeds, and readers for a general audience.

[…] is a single page website, for linking wherever you keep your web feed.

From that page:

Feeds put you in control. It’s like subscribing to a podcast, or following a company on Facebook. You don’t need to pay or hand over your email address. And you get the latest content without having to visit lots of sites, and without cluttering up your inbox. Had enough? Unsubscribe from the feed.

You just need a special app called a newsreader.

Gestures like this are lovely, but it is still a problem that RSS seemingly needs an explanation. There was a time when feed readers were built into email apps and web browsers, but that’s rarely the case now. I don’t know that there’s anything that will make it much easier for less technically inclined users to begin using RSS. It is a niche technology from a user’s perspective, but that is completely okay. Not everything needs to be dominant to be useful.

Mitchell Baker, Mozilla CEO:

Today we announced a significant restructuring of Mozilla Corporation. This will strengthen our ability to build and invest in products and services that will give people alternatives to conventional Big Tech. Sadly, the changes also include a significant reduction in our workforce by approximately 250 people. These are individuals of exceptional professional and personal caliber who have made outstanding contributions to who we are today. To each of them, I extend my heartfelt thanks and deepest regrets that we have come to this point. This is a humbling recognition of the realities we face, and what is needed to overcome them.

Microsoft’s Kat Marchán:

So to summarize what we know so far, the following teams at Mozilla have been either eliminated or gutted to oblivion:

* Firefox devtools

* Firefox incident/threat management team (?!)

* Servo


* WebXR/Firefox Reality

* DevRel/Community (???)

I guess they’re giving up?

Julia Evans:

[So] upset to hear about Mozilla’s MDN team being cut, it’s my go to reference for basically everything about the web.

It has been a long time since I was a Firefox user, but I cannot imagine building stuff for the web without MDN. I feel terrible for the hundreds of people laid off, for the impact their absence will have, and for the general downfall of Mozilla as Google has become a de facto web authority.

Kevin Poulsen and Robert McMillan, Wall Street Journal:

TikTok skirted a privacy safeguard in Google’s Android operating system to collect unique identifiers from millions of mobile devices, data that allows the app to track users online without allowing them to opt out, a Wall Street Journal analysis has found.


The identifiers collected by TikTok, called MAC addresses, are most commonly used for advertising purposes. The White House has said it is worried that users’ data could be obtained by the Chinese government and used to build detailed dossiers on individuals for blackmail or espionage.

Two things can be true here:

  1. This practice is not unique to TikTok. The Journal says that the method for scraping MAC addresses on Android devices is well known, but not necessarily widely used. Uber tracked iPhone serial numbers until a few years ago and hid that mechanism from App Store reviewers.

  2. It is a privacy-hostile practice that is always intolerable.

I point this out mostly because the Journal’s article is bookended by claims that this is especially concerning in TikTok’s case. However:

Apart from the MAC address, the Journal’s testing showed that TikTok wasn’t collecting an unusual amount of information for a mobile app, and it disclosed that collection in its privacy policy and in pop-ups requesting the user’s consent during installation.

Like I wrote last week, there is no difference between TikTok’s data collection behaviours and those of any other mainstream social media app. The difference is solely whether that data is easily accessible by a government, perhaps even directly.

I do not see it as outlandish to have an elevated concern about Chinese government involvement. Two years ago, Apple was compelled by local law to move Chinese users’ iCloud data to servers run by a state-connected company. This is a step beyond, say, Russian laws that require user data to be stored on servers located within the country. Apple maintains that it holds the encryption keys; subpoenas for Chinese users’ data are now handled by Chinese courts instead of American ones.

TikTok’s data collection is not particularly invasive, nor is it as all-encompassing as an iPhone backup. If you are concerned about Chinese government access of tracked data, you should be concerned about all kinds of tracking. This is not a China problem, nor is it a TikTok problem — it is a logical extension of marketers’ obsession with tracking. It should not be a surprise that this easily-deanonymized data is a gold mine for government abuse.

Tony Haile of Scroll:

Woah, I wonder how many publishers in Apple News+ realize that the new iOS 14 and MacOS Big Sur are by default intercepting traffic to their sites and sending it to the Apple News app instead.

Jeff Johnson:

From a privacy perspective, it would be very disturbing if Apple’s operating system were “phoning home” to Cupertino when you opened a URL to a non-Apple web site. Fortunately, this is not the case, at least on macOS Big Sur. (I haven’t installed or tested the iOS 14 beta, but I would assume it behaves the same as Big Sur in this respect.) This is easy to test yourself, if you think about it. Today I signed up for a free 1 month trial of Apple News+ (note to self: cancel in 4 weeks). Then I got the URL of an article from The Wall Street Journal, a publisher who participates in News+. I disconnected my internet by turning off my MacBook Pro’s Wi-Fi. Finally, I opened the Terminal app and entered the following command:


Same result, opens the News app! So I think we can say with confidence that Big Sur is checking an offline list of URL domains rather than checking online with Apple. Your privacy is still protected here.

It seems to me that if you pay for Apple News Plus you’d like to make full use of your subscription. If you open an article from the Wall Street Journal or the Atlantic in Safari, your visit will count against a paywall or you may not be able to view the article at all. Apple has chosen a crude way to send subscribers to Apple News — something more like an app banner would be less interruptive — but this does not appear to be as gratuitous or as privacy-invasive as it appear at first blush.

This thankfully marks the end of mixing up iTunes gift cards and Apple Store ones. Sure would be nice if one of these “Everything Apple” gift cards could be used to subscribe to an “Everything Apple” bundle of services, though.

Zheping Huang and Vlad Savov, Bloomberg:

The White House’s vaguely worded edict left a lot of open questions about how broadly the ban would be applied and the full ramifications for Tencent Holdings Ltd. But it likely gets WeChat bumped off Apple and Google’s app stores in 45 days, which means at least suspending updates for a service vital to everything from engineers talking with iPhone assemblers to Chinese people video-chatting with family back home.

If the ban extends to a block on its use, that threatens to eventually sever those ties because WeChat is the go-to for a billion people for everything from booking movie and train tickets to shopping, and alternatives like WhatsApp are blocked in China. The potential ructions underscore Tencent’s pivotal role within the global tech and internet economies, as a juggernaut with deep investments or connections with American businesses from Activision Blizzard Inc. and Snap Inc. to the NBA.

“It would practically shut down communication between the U.S. and China,” said Graham Webster, China Digital Economy Fellow at think tank New America. “These orders just wrap the real issues up in political theater.”

WeChat is, as Ben Thompson put it, “the most important layer of the smartphone stack” in China, and it remains so for many of those with family and friends in the country. Ming-Chi Kuo, in a note to investors, estimates that iPhone shipments would drop significantly if Apple could not keep WeChat in the App Store. I’m not weeping at the thought of fewer sales; this as an indication of just how important WeChat is. At the extreme end, these clumsy executive orders could be as powerful a motivator as antitrust action for a change in how apps work on iOS.

In the short term, it means that people and businesses around the world may be cut off from family, friends, customers, and a substantial source of income.

Ben Smith, New York Times:

But the referees who really matter nowadays are no longer the big media companies. The new referees are the Silicon Valley giants that control what we see when we search, browse or post online. But some in the news media learned lessons from back then, ones that Silicon Valley chief executives would be wise to reflect on this election season.

The biggest one is about false balance, and false symmetry. The American right and left have never been mirror images of each other. They’re different sorts of coalitions, with different histories and strategies.

And in the Trump era, a specific kind of misinformation on social media is a central tactic of the right. President Trump says false and misleading things at a remarkable rate — more than 20,000 so far in his presidency, according to a Washington Post tracker — and a whole constellation of blogs and websites, like The Gateway Pundit, support and amplify that strategy.

Facebook, Google and Twitter are making the same mistakes the news media made decades ago, looking for balance rather than confronting the plain reality of the moment.

This entire article is very good and is worth your time, but one section in particular seems to be misinterpreted:

But “the C.E.O. of Google can’t just come out and say, ‘The signals your site is sending and fact-checks on your content have created a problem for our company, and therefore we down-rank it,’” said Joan Donovan, the research director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. “Admitting that humans are often at the helm of decisions to curate content implies they are a media company and not simply infrastructure.”

Steve Katz, publisher of Mother Jones, believes this is the case because, if Google et al. admit that they adjust ranking signals, they “are *publishers* and not platforms, [and] the entire regulatory rulebook changes”. This argument is nonsense. The sole reason Google cannot directly say that humans are involved is because it would be a public relations nightmare. But it would be the right and honest thing to do.

Sarah Jeong, the Verge:

TikTok does gather a lot of personal data, but it’s no more than what Facebook and other social networks also gather. The difference between TikTok and Facebook is that we have a great deal of transparency into the process by which Facebook gives your information to various governments. And specifically, Facebook does not release data to the Chinese government.

When it comes down to it, the thorniest privacy dispute of 2020 isn’t about privacy or technology at all — it’s about China. The question “Is Facebook better, worse, or the same as TikTok?” is more or less the same as “Is the United States better, worse, or the same as China?”

And in 2020, this is becoming a genuinely difficult question to answer. China is detaining over a million Uighurs in internment camps, citing national security issues. The United States detains migrants in its own internment camps, even going as far as to place children in cages. China is not a democracy; the American president has proposed to unconstitutionally delay this year’s election. China brutally represses its political dissidents; in America, law enforcement in military camouflage have grabbed protesters off the streets and shoved them into unmarked vans.

This is probably the best piece I’ve read about the executive orders against WeChat and TikTok, and the so-called “Clean Network” policies that Mike Pompeo is promoting. There remain vast differences between U.S. and China policies, but the trick to maintaining the moral high ground is to not simultaneously narrow the gap, as the U.S. is presently doing.

Samuel Axon, Ars Technica:

In the wake of the Apple Silicon announcement, I spoke at length with John Giannandrea, Apple’s Senior Vice President for Machine Learning and AI Strategy, as well as with Bob Borchers, VP of Product Marketing. They described Apple’s AI philosophy, explained how machine learning drives certain features, and argued passionately for Apple’s on-device AI/ML strategy.


Both Giannandrea and Borchers made an impassioned case in our conversation that the features we just went over are possible because of—not in spite of—the fact that all the work is done locally on the device.


Borchers and Giannandrea both repeatedly made points about the privacy implications of doing this work in a data center, but Giannandrea said that local processing is also about performance.

If you spend your free time reading the white papers Apple prepares about various iOS and MacOS features, you probably know a fair amount of what Giannandrea and Borchers discuss in this interview. If, like me, you do not, you will likely learn from it.

One thing Axon appears not to have asked is how Apple grades the success of a machine learning model. For example, I noticed an apparent degradation in automatic typing corrections on my iPhone that coincided with switching from prioritizing nearest-neighbour keys based on dictionary likelihood to a differential privacy model in iOS 10. I have no idea if there was an actual quality reduction, nor if it was connected with the change in autocorrect engine. Perhaps it is more reliable at changing the spelling of obscure place names and public figures, for example. But it continues to bizarrely capitalize common words, and change things that I have typed several words prior when it thinks the context has changed.

Is this an actual difference? Am I misremembering the way autocorrect used to work for me? How does Apple’s machine learning team know when a change to something as crucial to the device as the keyboard is a success?

Byron Tau, Wall Street Journal:

Anomaly Six LLC, a Virginia-based company founded by two U.S. military veterans with a background in intelligence, said in marketing material it is able to draw location data from more than 500 mobile applications, in part through its own software development kit, or SDK, that is embedded directly in some of the apps. An SDK allows the company to obtain the phone’s location if consumers have allowed the app containing the software to access the phone’s GPS coordinates.

App publishers often allow third-party companies, for a fee, to insert SDKs into their apps. The SDK maker then sells the consumer data harvested from the app, and the app publisher gets a chunk of revenue. But consumers have no way to know whether SDKs are embedded in apps; most privacy policies don’t disclose that information. Anomaly Six says it embeds its own SDK in some apps, and in other cases gets location data from other partners.

Tau reports that Anomaly Six tracks the location of “hundreds of millions of mobile phones” but, citing the opacity of the data brokerage world, was not able to determine which apps include its SDK. Tau also reports that the founders of Anomaly Six used to work for Babel Street, which offers a similar privacy hellscape called “Locate X”:

Babel Street doesn’t publicly advertise Locate X and binds clients and users to secrecy about even its existence, according to contracts and user agreements reviewed by the Journal. Developed with input from U.S. government officials, according to court records, Locate X is widely used by military intelligence units who work on gathering “open source” intelligence, or information taken from publicly available sources. Babel Street also has contracts with the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department, and many other civilian agencies, federal contracting data shows. Babel Street didn’t respond to a request for comment.

So the U.S. government is comfy with the risk of starting another Cold War over apparent mass privacy violations by foreign actors on moral absolutist grounds, and is also content with having location back doors into hundreds of millions of phones. Got it.