Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for December 6th, 2021

A History of Autopilot’s Development at Tesla

Cade Metz and Neal E. Boudette, New York Times:

Unlike technologists at almost every other company working on self-driving vehicles, Mr. Musk insisted that autonomy could be achieved solely with cameras tracking their surroundings. But many Tesla engineers questioned whether it was safe enough to rely on cameras without the benefit of other sensing devices — and whether Mr. Musk was promising drivers too much about Autopilot’s capabilities.

Now those questions are at the heart of an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration after at least 12 accidents in which Teslas using Autopilot drove into parked fire trucks, police cars and other emergency vehicles, killing one person and injuring 17 others.

I hope autonomous vehicle technologies really can improve safety for drivers and pedestrians alike. I hope more that mass transit gets better, but why not have both? Just know that I am not rooting for these efforts to fail.

One of the defences I often see is that there were only twelve accidents where Autopilot failed out of millions of vehicles on the road. That is likely better than the record of human drivers behind the wheel of any brand of car.

But what this angle misses is that this is effectively twelve accidents caused by the same driver. Autopilot may have been in different cars at the time and with different software versions, but it is all attributable to the same code. Tesla’s software is the driver. That is not a radical position — it is what Volvo argued six years ago for its own cars. Tesla should accept full responsibility when drivers use its autonomous features and not cower behind weak disclaimers that fail to match its own public rhetoric.

One more thing:

Amnon Shashua, chief executive of Mobileye, a former Tesla supplier that has been testing technology that is similar to the electric-car maker’s, said Mr. Musk’s idea of using only cameras in a self-driving system could ultimately work, though other sensors may be needed in the short term. He added that Mr. Musk might exaggerate the capabilities of the company’s technology, but that those statements shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

“One should not be hung up on what Tesla says,” Mr. Shashua said. “Truth is not necessarily their end goal. The end goal is to build a business.”

I hope this is not meant as praise. If it is not possible to build a business truthfully, we are in bad shape. But I am sure it is meant tongue firmly in cheek which, combined with its forthcoming IPO, makes it a fortuitous time for Mobileye to be criticizing a competitor in the press.

Talking Apple Watch Straps

Eric Brain of Hypebeast interviewed Apple’s Evans Hankey and Stan Ng about the range of Apple Watch bands. It is unfortunately a pretty light interview — all marketing, no insight — but it made me reflect on how long Apple has been shipping some of these bands for, virtually unchanged.

The big, as-yet unanswered question is what it take for Apple to break backwards compatibility, or if that is something in the cards. Many Apple Watch owners have built up enormous collections of bands, and the longer Apple retains compatibility, the longer it will feel like that is a given.

So far, no strap has been exclusive to an Apple Watch series because of case size, though there are subtle fit issues when, say, putting a band designed for a 38mm model onto a 41mm Series 7. Apple says that the Solo Loop and Braided Solo Loop are only compatible with Series 4 or newer models, but the fit is not terrible on older models. It is not outright incompatible. There are also a handful of bands that have been exclusive to one of the smaller or larger models, like the Modern Buckle and now-discontinued Leather Loop.

In traditional watch terms, Apple has maintained a nearly consistent lug width in each size bracket. This fascinates me. It seems like every new iPhone has slightly different measurements for justifiable reasons like a different camera system and, so, needs a different case. But if you can still use the exact same bands as you used on the Apple Watch of six years ago, so long as you continue to buy either the small or large model.

For comparison, Rolex has been making versions of its iconic Submariner for nearly seventy years, but it consistently took 20mm straps until last year. It would be unwise to speculate that Apple will also take decades to change, but Watch hardware itself have been fairly consistent year-over-year. It is similarly iconic.

Privacy and Repairs

Apple’s announcement last month that it would soon sell users the parts they need to repair devices themselves reignited discussion about the perceived advantages and drawbacks of self-repair, and promoted questions about how many users would actually take advantage of the program. My guess is that it will be proportionate to the number of people who repair their own vehicles: not many. That is a shame because replacing an iPhone’s display or a MacBook Air’s battery is not very difficult, and I find it emotionally rewarding.

Regardless of whether that resonates with anyone else, one reason more people should be able to repair their own devices is to maintain control over their data. This is not theoretical.

Michael Brice-Saddler, reporting for the Washington Post in November 2019:

It was a sense of foreboding that prompted Gloria Fuentes to delete several apps from her phone ahead of an Apple Store appointment last week in Bakersfield, Calif.


It turns out Fuentes’s initial concerns were legitimate. When she got home, Fuentes turned on her phone and noticed a text that had been sent to an unknown number, she wrote. The message’s contents were even more harrowing: Fuentes alleged that the Apple employee had gone through her photos, retrieved a private picture and texted it to himself.

The picture in question was taken more than a year ago, she added.

In this article, Brice-Saddler mentions a handful of similar incidents from years past.

James Titcomb, reporting for the Telegraph in June:

Apple paid millions of dollars to a student after iPhone repair technicians posted explicit photos and videos from her phone to Facebook, legal documents have revealed.

The tech giant agreed a settlement with the 21-year-old after two employees at a repair facility uploaded the images from a phone she had sent to Apple to be fixed, resulting in “severe emotional distress”.

The repair facility was operated by Pegatron, but customers are not aware of that when turning their phones in to Apple for repair.

Ryne Hager, AndroidPolice:

Over the week, two Pixel owners have publicly reported that devices sent back to Google for warranty service and replacement were used to violate their privacy. In one instance, someone allegedly took “nudes” from the device and posted them on a customer’s social media account before stealing a small sum via PayPal. Game designer and New York Times bestselling author Jane McGonigal also later tweeted out her own report detailing someone’s attempts to secure similar information from her account, trawling her Gmail, Google Drive, and other data backup sources after she sent her phone to Google for repair.

Stories of repair technicians taking advantage of their position are as disgusting are they are common. Employees like these are present in official channels, at contractors, and at independent repair shops. But even though the problem is a common one, it should surprise nobody that all of these stories are about men violating the privacy of women through their broken devices.

It is not as though other professions do not have their share of creeps. But medical professionals and lawyers have more to lose. When a doctor violates the confidentiality of their relationship with a patient, their name makes the news, and they may get stripped of credentials or expelled from colleges. In many cases, the repair technicians who are found to be responsible for similarly egregious violations are nameless, and could easily get hired elsewhere.

Other professions requiring a high degree of trust in confidential information have codes of conduct their practitioners must adhere to, and governing bodies that can discipline rule-breakers. Repair technicians do not; the qualifications Apple requires of Genius Bar staff are similar to those of retail floor staff. Perhaps that is something which ought to be considered: a self-governing body that sets a minimum standard of expertise for consumer-level repairs,1 and can de-certify anyone who abuses their position.

The above cases are symptomatic of the objectification of women, almost always by men, that is commonplace at all levels of society and which we desperately need to correct. But privacy concerns are not limited to these flagrant violations. There are also items that all of us have on our computers that would make us concerned if a technician accessed them. These privacy incursions are certainly less egregious, but are damaging in their own way. We keep records of our conversations, banking history, health, and so much more on devices we would be reluctant to hand to a stranger on the street.

If you are concerned about someone else handling your device — and I think there are perfectly good, non-criminal reasons for being wary — a self-repair option might make sense for you. We should all expect privacy from technicians, and those who choose a full-service option are in no way asking to be taken advantage of. But self-repair offers another level of reassurance. Your device never leaves your hands. That peace of mind may, for some, be worth the modest learning curve.

  1. I am familiar with the kinds of certifications available to system administrators. ↩︎

Life360 Is Selling Precise Location Data on Its Tens of Millions of Users

Jon Keegan and Alfred Ng, the Markup:

Life360, a popular family safety app used by 33 million people worldwide, has been marketed as a great way for parents to track their children’s movements using their cellphones. The Markup has learned, however, that the app is selling data on kids’ and families’ whereabouts to approximately a dozen data brokers who have sold data to virtually anyone who wants to buy it.

In 2019, Apple pulled about a dozen parental control apps from the App Store over privacy concerns, since they abused Mobile Device Management, though I cannot find any reports that Life360 was among them. However, I did come across a Wired article from later that year in which Louise Matsakis reported that Life360’s public trading prospectus indicated the value it sees in mining its vast collection of user data — largely of children — for profit.

Last month, Life360 announced it would be acquiring Tile.

Verizon Joins Other U.S. Telecoms in Opting Users Into Data Collection and Tracking

Andrew Paul, Input:

A new program innocuously titled the “Verizon Custom Experience” is sold to users as a way for the company to “personalize our communications with you, give you more relevant product and service recommendations, and develop plans, services and offers that are more appealing to you.” To accomplish this, all a Verizon subscriber needs to do is… allow the company access to all the websites you visit, apps you use, as well as see everyone you happen to call and text.

Well, okay, so that’s a bit misleading. You don’t “need” to allow access — Verizon already default granted it. You can manually go in and change a few settings to remedy the situation, though. Here’s how.

Emma Roth, the Verge:

In April, T-Mobile started automatically enrolling users in a program that shares your data with advertisers unless you manually opt-out from your privacy settings. On AT&T’s privacy center, the company says that it collects web and browsing information, along with the apps you use, and that you can manage these settings from AT&T’s site.

Even though this is a common practice among U.S. internet providers, it still disturbs me that they treat it as an opt-out arrangement. Each user has to get an idea that this program exists in the first place, know what it is called — “Custom Experience” is a weaselly marketing way to avoid saying tracking and profiling — and figure out how to disable it. This is a massive ISP-wide privacy violation that is completely legal, and entirely unethical.