Yesterday, “Ellie” tweeted:
ATTENTION ALL GIRLS ALL GIRLS!!! Go to your photos and type in the ‘Brassiere’ why are apple saving these and made it a folder!!?!!?
This realization went viral; Christine Teigen posted about it, too. And, arguably, rightfully so — if you found out that your phone was, somehow, making it easier for you to search semi-nude photos, you might find that creepy, and you’d probably want to warn a lot of people about that.
Readers of Pixel Envy, on the other hand, probably aren’t surprised to hear this. You’re probably tech savvy, and you probably know that iOS’ Photos app attempts to make the contents of pictures searchable. You likely even know that this is done entirely on the device in a very private way.
None of that has been effectively communicated to users, though, if the outrage over this search term and the results of a recent poll are anything to go by. It was commissioned by the Verge and conducted by Reticle Research, and Apple didn’t fare very well against its rivals when it came to trust:
Participants trusted Amazon the most, which is not all that surprising given its e-commerce store’s ubiquity and the company’s overall drive to provide more value for lower prices with Prime and other services. Yet participants trusted Apple less than even Google, a company with a primary business model of collecting consumer data for targeting advertisements.
A question about trust, broadly, does not fully represent what people find more trustworthy about Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and respondents’ banks compared to Apple. Maybe they don’t trust Apple’s reliability, or software updates, or any number of things. But the survey finding that Google, of all companies, is more trustworthy than Apple is pretty alarming for anyone who knows anything about their business model.
What’s more, even the ability to search a photo library for pictures of bras isn’t unique to iOS. Dami Lee, the Verge:
For the record, Google Photos does the exact same thing when you search “brassiere,” except your photos are stored on the cloud, in Google’s servers. If anything, this should be the bigger security concern that’s freaking out people on Twitter.
Yet, average users don’t seem to understand that the way Apple approaches privacy is fundamentally different than the way their competitors do. I know people who have refused to register their fingerprint with Touch ID for several years because they think it gets uploaded to Apple’s servers; even so, they happily use Google’s suite of products. Apple’s generally privacy-respecting practices get lumped in with others’ unsavoury approaches, and — I think — that leads to controversies like this one.
There’s something else, too, that’s bothering me about this: I wonder if most people — and, let’s face it, “people” is too broad a term; “women” is much more accurate — want to search for photos of bras in their image library. That is, even if this capability and the privacy protections in place had been effectively communicated, is this something that users want catalogued?
I don’t know how many women are on Apple’s machine learning teams specifically, but just 23% of their technical employees are women. Judging by Twitter users’ incredulity, it seems like something women may not actually want, and I wonder if a higher percentage of women in technical roles might have caused object recognition to be filtered more carefully.
Perhaps not, though. Perhaps this functionality sailed through all sorts of gender and ethics tests. In that case, I think it comes back to it being poorly-communicated in poisoned waters. Google is still seen as friendly and trustworthy; Apple is, apparently, not seen that way as much. In that case, perhaps Apple ought to calibrate their functionality for their privacy-cavalier competitors, or run a campaign to build trust in their brand again. Or, maybe Silicon Valley just needs to go a little slower and let us all catch up.