Last Week on My Mac: Finding not hiding

I’m no interior designer, and have a lifelong hatred for open-plan offices anyway, but there’s one feature that I’m sure Apple’s headquarters still needs: at each level, at least one working Mac from each five year period since 1984. Looking back may not seem an Apple thing, but it’s a great advantage to be a Janus. I looked back a little last week, in a throwaway line: fifteen years ago, in 2006, when Spotlight arrived on our Macs “we were all more concerned with finding our documents than preventing others from reading their contents”. That made me consider why privacy is now more important than access.

Only last night I needed to huck out some information from old files, going right back to the early 1990s. A few minutes of Spotlight search, courtesy of HoudahSpot, and I was able to quote chapter, verse and year to answer a question from a former colleague. Without a single dialog or prompt about accessing protected files.

So why have we become so concerned about protecting our privacy? Is this just a marketing feature, or a spurious alarm raised by those selling digital snake-oil?

I think this is genuine, and that anyone who uses their computer(s) and devices to store sensitive information has to take privacy seriously. In a world where physical banks are vanishing, and writing cheques strongly discouraged, we have no option. Gone are the days when I used to drop into my local bank and ask one of the staff – most of whom knew me – to transfer some money from one account to another. Now I do the same using their iOS app, well away from any risk of catching Covid-19, but trusting everything on that iPhone to respect the privacy of that transaction.

Privacy protection is mainly aimed at two areas: online extraction when we’re accessing Google’s services and social media like Facebook, and the apps which we run on our Macs and devices. In both cases, recent advances in privacy protection have followed years of neglect. Apple and others are trying to catch up with those who have been abusing our trust to make money from our data.

Google, Facebook and other social media are of course businesses which are built on this trade. Who on earth could afford to provide such services free of charge to the end user? The fact that they don’t declare their business models frankly only confirms that, if people really understood what they’re up to, many more would do as I did several years ago, and close their Facebook account. I still feel a little exhilaration each time I remember doing so. I’m delighted that Apple is starting to oppose this secretive and sordid trade in personal data.

Looking back to 2006, the other big differences in privacy are the apps which I use. In those days, most came from reputable suppliers, industry names. Even freeware and shareware came from known developers. Apple produced a wonderful encyclopaedic directory of all the Mac software offered by officially registered developers. It was a small world, and reputations were important.

Then in 2008 Apple brought change with its App Store. Initially for iOS, where it made sense, three years later Apple followed that with its Mac OS X store. With what appeared to be stringent criteria for review, Apple has repeatedly told us how it has curated all the apps which it sells. Sadly, experience is to the contrary, with counterfeits and worse being offered for sale. Instead of building on the reputation and trust which had been the core of the software market, the App Store has weakened if not destroyed the trust we can put in software.

I now find myself avoiding the purchase of any App Store product which comes from a developer I don’t know and don’t trust, and for many this has led to a loss of trust in Apple itself. Are those tens and hundreds of thousands of apps curated, or just another means to increase service revenue?

What has changed in those fifteen years since Apple introduced Spotlight is that we are now rightly suspicious of everyone trying to lure us to their social medium, and of any app which we purchase from the App Store. To compensate for that lack of curation, Apple has been compelled to invest macOS with obtrusive protection for our private data. It has raked in the money from the App Store, only to have to re-invest some of it to protect users from some of the products which it sells.

I can see those young engineers in their first weeks at Apple sat down in front of a Mac Pro from 2006, discovering that Mac OS X 10.4 had no privacy protection beyond standard Unix permissions. How did we ever keep our sensitive data safe then? Reputation and trust, the best curators of them all. Those are what we need in an App Store, instead of dozens of different decompression utilities, some of which don’t even work.