Archive for January 31, 2024

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Apple Vision Pro Reviews

Nilay Patel (Hacker News):

Apple’s settled for building a headset with real-time video passthrough — it is the defining tradeoff of the Vision Pro. It is a VR headset masquerading as an AR headset. And let me tell you: the video passthrough on the Vision Pro is really good.


The Vision Pro simply doesn’t work like that — you have to be looking at something in order to click on it, and that means you are constantly taking your attention away from whatever you’re working on to specifically look at the button you need to press next.


You can open as many apps as you want and put them anywhere you want in space. You can open windows in the kitchen, walk away from them and open some more in the living room, and then go back to the kitchen to find all your old windows waiting for you.


Your Mac thinks it’s connected to a 5K display with a resolution of 5120 x 2880, and it runs macOS at a 2:1 logical resolution of 2560 x 1440, just like a 5K display. […] That virtual display is then streamed as a 4K 3560 x 2880 video to the Vision Pro, where you can just make it as big as you want. The upshot of all of this is that 4K content runs at a native 4K resolution — it has all the pixels to do it, just like an iMac — but you have a grand total of 2560 x 1440 to place windows in, regardless of how big you make the Mac display in space, and you’re not seeing a pixel-perfect 5K image.


There are a lot of ideas in the Vision Pro, and they’re all executed with the kind of thoughtful intention that few other companies can ever deliver at all, let alone on the first iteration. But the shocking thing is that Apple may have inadvertently revealed that some of these core ideas are actually dead ends — that they can’t ever be executed well enough to become mainstream. This is the best video passthrough headset ever made, and that might mean camera-based mixed reality passthrough could just be a road to nowhere. This is the best hand- and eye-tracking ever, and it feels like the mouse, keyboard, and touchscreen are going to remain undefeated for years to come. There is so much technology in this thing that feels like magic when it works and frustrates you completely when it doesn’t.

Adi Robertson (via Ric Ford):

Yet as I’ve watched the Vision Pro go from announcement to release, it’s also seemed held back by something that has little to do with hardware. Apple is trying to create the computer of the future, but it’s doing so under the tech company mindset of the present: one obsessed with consolidation, closed ecosystems, and treating platforms as a zero-sum game.


For all its problems, the Vision Pro is giving us our first glimpse of a computer born into the era of walled gardens... and it’s hard not to wonder what we’re missing as a result.

Joanna Stern (Hacker News):

There is a built-in virtual keyboard so you can type in thin air. But it will drive you mad for anything longer than a short message. And selecting smaller buttons with a pinch should be a carnival game. I started getting real work done once I paired the Vision Pro with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse.


There’s a lot of amazing tech at play: The system uses cameras to track eye, hand and face movements in real time. But if everyone I call either falls over laughing or recoils in horror, what good is it? Apple says the [Persona] feature is in beta.


I worried about wielding a knife, but there’s no noticeable latency between what you see on screen and what’s really happening. Everything is a bit pixelated, but on the plus side, your eyes don’t tear up when you’re cutting onions!

The “wow” moment came at the stove when I dragged one timer over the boiling pasta and another over the browning mushrooms. They just hovered until time was up.


Apple’s headset has all the characteristics of a first-generation product: It’s big and heavy, its battery life sucks, there are few great apps and it can be buggy.

John Gruber:

I’ve used it for hours at a time without any discomfort, but fatigue does set in, from the weight alone. You never forget that you’re wearing it.


The virtual keyboard is better than trying to type on an Apple Watch, but not by much. […] This little HUD lets you see what you’re typing while keeping your eyes on the physical keyboard. It’s weird but in a good way. One week in and it still brings a smile to my face to have a physical keyboard with tappable autocomplete suggestions.


The fundamental interaction model in VisionOS feels like it will be copied by all future VR/AR headsets, in the same way that all desktop computers work like the Mac, and all phones and tablets now work like the iPhone.


EyeSight is not an “Oh my god, I can see your eyes!” feature, but instead more of an “Oh, yes, now that you ask, I guess I can sort of see your eyes” feature. Apple seemingly went to great lengths (and significant expense) to create the EyeSight feature, but so far I’ve found it to be of highly dubious utility, if only because it’s so subtle. It’s like wearing tinted goggles meant to obscure you, not clear goggles meant to show your eyes clearly.


Vision Pro is simply a phenomenal way to watch movies, and 3D immersive experiences are astonishing. There are 3D immersive experiences in Vision Pro that are more compelling than Disney World attractions that people wait in line for hours to see.


Spatial computing in VisionOS is the real deal. It’s a legit productivity computing platform right now, and it’s only going to get better. It sounds like hype, but I truly believe this is a landmark breakthrough like the 1984 Macintosh and the 2007 iPhone.

Mark Spoonauer:

The Apple Vision Pro is a truly amazing product that delivers futuristic eye- and hand-tracking interface along with breathtaking 3D video and truly impressive AR apps. It’s also a magical way to extend your Mac. But there’s some early performance bugs that need to be worked out, the battery can get in the way, and Digital Persona is a bit creepy and needs work.

Scott Stein:

The headset is the best wearable display I’ve ever put on. But at its price, and with so few VisionOS apps at launch, the Vision Pro isn’t a device I’d recommend to any of my friends or family. If you’re in the immersive industry and can afford one, then that’s another story. But for anyone else, I’d recommend you get a free demo at an Apple Store, marvel at its features and wait and see.


Will I carry Vision Pro around like a computer? In the Apple travel case (sold separately for $199), the Vision Pro is like a very bulbous set of headphones. It’s bigger than my large backpack can hold. Also, I’d need a keyboard and trackpad. A laptop or iPad is a more portable option, and less in need of special packing care.


You can watch Justine Ezarik, Marques Brownlee, and Brian Tong testing their Personas on a FaceTime call in the video below[…]

Quinn Nelson:

The most surprising takeaway from all the Vision Pro reviews/videos is how universally awful the EyeSight display is. Until today, I expected it to be super important to the “I’m still in the real world” experience. Now, I’m 95% sure it’ll be canned by the 2nd gen.

Benjamin Mayo:

One such limit is that the Vision Pro home screen of apps is not organizable in visionOS 1.0. As noted by Brian Tong in his video review, the system currently does not let the user reorder their grid of apps […] You can navigate between pages by swiping with your hand. But if your favorite apps start with letters at the back half of the alphabet, there’s currently no way to move them to the first or second page to make accessing them more convenient. You also can’t make folders to group related apps together.

Another potential thing to be aware of is that you cannot create home screen icons for websites. The ‘Add to Home Screen’ button in Safari is simply not present on visionOS at the moment.

Tim Hardwick:

Marques Brownlee in his unboxing video also described the battery as “pretty heavy,” and compared it to phones with larger capacity 5,000+ mAh batteries that feel “much lighter.”


The external battery pack that comes with the Vision Pro is silver, has a proprietary connector for attaching to the headset, and a USB-C port for charging via the included 30W wall charger. The proprietary connector is connected to the Vision Pro by rotating it a quarter turn to lock it into place.

For those considering buying an additional $200 battery pack, one thing to bear in mind is that Vision Pro batteries are not hot-swappable[…]

John Siracusa:

Where Vision Pro may stumble is in its interface to the deep, spatial world it provides. We all know how to reach out and “directly manipulate” objects in the real world, but that’s not what Vision Pro asks us to do. Instead, Vision Pro requires us to first look at the thing we want to manipulate, and then perform an “indirect” gesture with our hands to operate on it.

Is this look-then-gesture interaction any different than using a mouse to “indirectly” manipulate a pointer? Does it leverage our innate spatial abilities to the same extent? Time will tell. But I feel comfortable saying that, in some ways, this kind of Vision Pro interaction is less “direct” than the iPhone’s touch interface, where we see a thing on a screen and then literally place our fingers on it.

Francisco Tolmasky:

Literally the number one thing I heard from so many people was something along the lines of “just being able to have multiple monitors all around me makes the Vision Pro worthwhile!” And it turns out it can’t do that.


Meet some of the incredible teams building for visionOS, and get answers from Apple experts on spatial design and creating great apps for Apple Vision Pro.

Juli Clover:

Apple has sold upwards of 200,000 Vision Pro headsets, MacRumors has learned from a source with knowledge of Apple's sales numbers.

See also: John Voorhees, Om Malik, MacRumors, 9to5Mac, Matthew Cassinelli, Dithering.


Update (2024-02-05): Philip Rosedale:

I found myself at one point actually resting my chin in my hand with my elbow on the table because… it’s that heavy. And I am a large strong person used to wearing these things. Way too heavy for prolonged use. You have to tighten it too your face really hard because of the single strap, and it felt more uncomfortable at the contact points with your face than the Quest. When Aaron took his AVP off, the red ring on his face was comical…


I do think the UX and in particular using the gaze as a pointer shows a path to genuinely new ways of interfacing with computers, once the weight can be reduced by (at least) 2X. But there is no short-term line of sight to how that level of weight reduction could be achieved, given that we can be sure Apple tried very hard and are excellent industrial designers. And as I mentioned earlier, the most vital capability for healthy usage - being able to easily communicate with other people while wearing it - remains to be explored.

Adam Engst:

The $3499 list price is just the beginning. That model has 256 GB of storage; 512 GB costs $3699 and 1 TB is $3899. Given the size of 3D content, apps, and your Photos library, 256 GB may not be enough. Many will also need the Zeiss optical inserts: $99 for readers or $149 for prescription lenses. Apple’s padded carrying case for travel runs another $199, and AppleCare+—almost certainly essential—costs $499. You could also pay $199 for a backup battery pack and $199 for another light seal cushion if someone else in your household wants to try it. It would be easy to spend $5000 on a kitted-out Vision Pro.


Several reviewers briefly mentioned that there’s a Guest mode that lets someone else try out a Vision Pro, and iJustine demos it with a friend. From what I can tell, though, it’s designed for demos, not for regular sharing with someone else in your family.


The most important thing to remember about the Vision Pro is that it’s not for “the rest of us.” It’s not even clear who the Vision Pro is for—there is no killer app yet. Apple is planting seeds for developers, early adopters, and the tech curious who are willing to spend big to be on the bleeding edge. To be sure, Apple also wants to get ahead of Meta and other companies that may want to stake out similar territory. The hope is that the Vision Pro will provide everyone—Apple, developers, and users—with the experience necessary to work toward a point where the technology has evolved sufficiently that it can become a mainstream product at an affordable price.

Paris Marx (via doekman):

The Vision Pro looks sleek in an Apple-y way, but it also looks pretty ridiculous. The company clearly imagines us wearing this headset throughout our days and interacting with people as if there isn’t a large device strapped to our heads, occasionally displaying an eery representation of our eyes. That feature is designed to show the headset isn’t isolating, and is rather an “augmented reality” piece of hardware. While I’m sure the distinction between augmented and virtual reality matters to some people, what I observed in the presentation was just how little difference it makes.


The emphasis was on work and the notion that it should be normal to wear a headset throughout your day. You can understand the emphasis on work, especially given the headset’s price tag (which we’ll get to later), but ultimately if this is the direction computing is set to go in the next ten or fifteen years, we’re in for an even more dismal future than the one Silicon Valley has so far shouldered us with.

John Gruber:

And, like the butterfly from Encounter Dinosaurs that some people can feel landing on their outstretched finger, I swear to you, I can almost feel the telekinetic connection with UI elements in VisionOS. It’s a hint, a whiff, of tension — between not just my hands and the virtual elements I’m manipulating, but between my mind and those elements. Just the vaguest sensation of tension emanating from my forehead, like a taut thread of ultrafine string connecting my mind to the window I’m moving, or button I’m pressing, or photo I’m stretching.

With Vision Pro, the gestures are necessary, because the device can’t actually read your mind. (At least not in this first-generation version.)

Boris Yurkevich:

There’s a strong Sci-Fi vibe I am getting from the media and press. It feels like we just made the next step into the future.

Update (2024-02-06): Manton Reece:

Amazing video from Casey Neistat going around New York City wearing the Vision Pro. My opinion keeps alternating between “I need this now” and “no one should ever have this”…

Jamie Zawinski:

Are we just gonna keep calling them glassholes, or is there a new word yet?

Dave Mark:

Reminds me of how weird AirPods looked when they first started popping up in public. Now they are ubiquitous.

I’m a believer. Vision Pro is going to be a big part of Apple’s future.

Ben Thompson (Hacker News):

First off, the user interface is exceptionally difficult to manage once you have multiple windows on the screen, particularly when windows are arranged on the z-axis (i.e. nearer or closer to you in 3-D space); one gets the sense that the usability of iOS-based operating systems are inversely correlated to their screen size. Second, while the eye tracking is an incredible feat of engineering, it is not nearly as precise as it needs to be for productive window management.

The biggest limitation, though, is hardware: the Vision Pro field of view is very narrow, in a way I didn’t fully appreciate while only using one app in that demo (Apple hasn’t reported the number, but it is noticeably narrower than the Quest 3’s 110°). This becomes immediately apparent when you have more than two or so apps open: if you want room for more, without encountering the z-axis issues I noted above, you better get ready to physically move your head or body (this is exacerbated by the fact that Vision Pro apps are very large, even if you have chosen the “small” preference; I would like them to be half the size they present as).

The net result is that the Vision Pro, at least in its current incarnation, does not come close to being the productivity tool I was so excited about last summer, when I wrote that I suspected the Vision Pro was “the future of the Mac”, and that’s even before getting to the limitations of Apple’s iOS-based operating system in terms of app capabilities and business models. That latter point, along with the limitations of eye-tracking as a default user-interface model, also makes me worry that new and better hardware won’t change this reality.

Wes Davis:

The Vision Pro subreddit is naturally offering a taste of how Apple’s vision is landing with people who decide to take the plunge.

Jason Snell:

In the meantime, I’ve gotten a bunch of questions from readers and listeners about the device, so I thought I’d make my first piece about the Vision Pro an FAQ story.

Filipe Espósito:

Although the front glass on the Vision Pro has proven to be quite resistant to accidental damage, new tests show that it is highly susceptible to scratches.

Luke Wroblewski:

Is Apple now locked in a habit of porting their ecosystem from screen to screen to screen? And, as a result, tethered to too many constraints, requirements, and paradigms about what an app is and we should interact with it? Were they burned by skeuomorphic design and no longer want to push the user interface in non-conventional ways?

Garrett Murray:

Feature request for iOS: Give me a setting to unlock my phone with Optic ID via Vision Pro when I’m wearing it. Currently I have to cancel Face ID and unlock with my passcode every time which is silly.

Francisco Tolmasky:

I keep putting my hands behind by head and leaning back in my chair while using it (like in this image below). Pinching to click of course does not work when I’m like this, and it’s so unbelievably annoying. Apple makes such a huge deal about it working “anywhere”, and you get so used to your eyes being the controllers, that it feels like a school teacher telling you not to slouch or something when it inevitably and, at least for me, frequently doesn’t work.


Speaking of environments, wow, what a let down. They go away the second you move! Maybe this was obvious to everyone else, but I thought I’d be able to explore a little bit. Like I dunno, a few meters around me? Nothing crazy, just enough so that if I want to stretch my legs I still feel like I’m “there”. But no, the second you move 3 feet, it just disappears. It already didn’t seem that “real” to me, but this really makes it feel like just a picture to me.

Daniel Jalkut:

I keep discovering new amazing things about Apple Vision Pro. I hesitated to buy this because I thought I’d regret it, but it’s increasingly unlikely I’ll return it. It’s such a game changer. Naysayers are all wrong or will be in 1-2 years.

Update (2024-02-14): See also:

Update (2024-02-16): See also:

Update (2024-02-21): Wade Tregaskis:

I was really surprised to see pixels. Immediately. Even though I was already aware – mainly from John’s stumbling over the topic on ATP – that the PPD (Pixels per Degree) is actually quite poor on the Vision Pro, at just 34. A “Retina display” at typical viewing distances is around 100. Even an ancient non-Retina Apple display is about 50.


Furthermore, unlike the original Macintosh’s screen – which at least had quite crisp pixels – the Vision Pro is blurry as well. That surprised me less – I figured there might be some calibration required, which was perhaps unintentionally skipped by the buggy demo unit. But my Apple Store handler didn’t seem to think so, yet seemed surprised by my comments (that the view was pixelated and blurry). He had no real answer to that. He implied (by omission) that my experience was normal. 😕


The other thing I noticed within a literal second of using the unit is that the artificial visuals jitter – jump randomly about by a pixel or two. All the time. It’s less noticeable in full VR mode where you have no objective reference in the form of real world objects, but in AR mode everything displayed by the Vision Pro is shaking. I was able to mostly ignore it throughout the demo – but only with conscious effort. Any time I let my mind or vision wander in the slightest, the shaking immediately bothered me once more.

Update (2024-02-23): Joe Rosensteel (Mastodon):

What I thought I was prepared for, and I wasn’t, was the intense tunnel effect. In the video reviews I watched attempts were made to create an approximation of the binocular-like effect of having ones field of view constrained, but in my opinion the simulated views have been too generous. What really added to it was the chromatic aberration and how strong the sharpness fell off from the center. How much of that falloff was from the foveated rendering, and how much was softness from my own vision, or these particular Zeiss inserts, I can’t say. It just wasn’t sharp outside of this cone in the center of my vision.

This was most notable when we got to the part of the demo where Eric had me open Safari and he relayed the scripted response about how sharp and readable the text was, and how it could be used for work … and I did not share these feelings. The text I was looking directly at was clear enough, but three lines up, or down was fuzzy, and likewise side-to-side. I never felt like everything was blurry, but definitely made my view feel smaller than if I was looking at an equally large real-world billboard of text.

Update (2024-02-27): Kris Holt:

But when you wake up to begin a new day of work while wearing the $3,500 headset, you spot a problem: a hairline crack has formed on the front cover glass.

That’s a problem that at least a few users have encountered, according to a handful of reports on Reddit. It’s unclear how many units have been affected, though AppleInsider, which first reported on the cracks, suggests it’s a small number. The issue occurred on Engadget’s review unit as well.

Matt Birchler:

I find using the Vision Pro to be a “heavier” experience than using an iPhone, iPad, or Mac. That’s not to say that’s a bad thing all the time, but I don’t find myself wanting to casually use the Vision Pro. The Vision Pro can be great when I’m fully engaged in what I’m doing, but it’s not what I’m gravitating towards when I’m chilling or just don’t have it in me to get “in the zone”.


What’s interesting to me is that this is the first time I’ve found a new Apple platform to be more intense to use than what came before. I’ve got my complaints with iPadOS, but one thing that platform does well is make doing simple tasks very easy. When I was sick in the past, my iPad became my best friend. When I was sick this time, my iPhone (aka the greatest computing form factor of all time) was my hero. This isn’t to say the Vision Pro is too complicated or has too many features, if anything the opposite is true, it’s just that doing those things requires managing a mental load that I didn’t appreciate until my capacities were reduced.

Update (2024-03-15): Matt Birchler:

  • The Vision Pro is far less useful for me as a computer than my Mac, iPad, and iPhone.
  • The Vision Pro can deliver fantastic media experiences.
  • The Vision Pro is appropriately priced for the technology it delivers.
  • The Vision Pro is fundamentally held back by the fact that wearing headsets sucks.
  • There are many better ways for almost everyone to spend $3,500-4,000 on computer hardware in 2024.
  • For the right sort of person, the Vision Pro is a product they simply must own.


I’d also really like to see Apple greatly improve window “session” management. Right now, I basically start from scratch every time I put on the Vision Pro. I need to open each app one at a time and move it to where I want it to be. I’d really like to be able to configure a few windows and then save them as a “session” or “workspace” and then pull up that configuration on demand in the future.

Hugo Barra (Hacker News):

Some of the topics I touch on:

  • Why I believe Vision Pro may be an over-engineered “devkit”
  • The genius & audacity behind some of Apple’s hardware decisions
  • Gaze & pinch is an incredible UI superpower and major industry ah-ha moment
  • Why the Vision Pro software/content story is so dull and unimaginative
  • Why most people won’t use Vision Pro for watching TV/movies
  • Apple’s bet in immersive video is a total game-changer for Live Sports
  • Why I returned my Vision Pro… and my Top 10 wishlist to reconsider
  • Apple’s VR debut is the best thing that ever happened to Oculus/Meta
  • My unsolicited product advice to Meta for Quest Pro 2 and beyond

Update (2024-04-03): Sebastiaan de With:

A few months on, I have to regrettably say the Vision Pro is kind of useless to me.

I really wanted it to be more like my Mac or iPhone, but it’s very much like the iPad: A fantastic device conceptually, but I never really find myself reaching for it.

It was great on a flight! But that’s an odd use case, and I don’t want to pack more bulk along. Puzzlingly, you’d expect Apple to have a steady drip of fantastic immersive content to keep you coming back, but it’s the same library as launch day today.


Update (2024-04-11): Juli Clover:

Some Apple Vision Pro owners have been dealing with health issues related to the wearing of the headset, according to a report from MarketWatch. The site spoke to Vision Pro owners experiencing headaches and neck pain, among other issues.

Emily Olman, marketing chief of Hopscotch Interactive, said she got two “superdark black eyes” after wearing the Vision Pro for the first time, likely caused by the weight on the cheeks. Ian Beacraft, CEO of consulting firm Signal, told MarketWatch that he had pain at the base of his skull and his upper back.

There have also been complaints about the Vision Pro on Reddit from users experiencing ongoing headaches, eye strain, and pain from the weight of the device. Some users have had luck with modified straps and third-party products, and other people have no issue with the headset and the default band options.

Jason Snell:

Today, we are so tech-savvy as a society that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be on the ground floor of a barely feasible product category. And yet, that’s just where we are with the Vision Pro and similar products.

I’m not declaring that the Vision Pro has a special destiny because there’s no way to know that. But I do feel comfortable suggesting that those who are declaring it a dead end and a failed product might want to consider how foolish it would have been to say the same thing about a Commodore PET or TRS-80 in 1977.

Castro Sold Again

Castro Team:

We are excited to announce Castro has been purchased by Bluck Apps. Castro is a great app with a long history on iOS and many passionate fans, and it will continue to operate in its current form. This is a return to its independent roots. We won’t be making any drastic changes, like overhauling the UI to look more like TikTok. We’re not adding an AI chatbot. We’ll just keep running the podcast service you already love, with a few tweaks to modernize and keep things running smoothly.


We know that over the past few months Castro has not communicated well. The new team’s #1 priority will be keeping our users informed. Starting today, all support emails will be answered in a timely manner. Major changes will be broadcast widely, and we’ll let you know if something is going on with the app.


Bluck Apps is an independently run app studio and consulting agency. We already have a podcast app on Android.

It will still be free with a subscription for advanced features.

Matt Birchler:

What I loved about Castro was that it had an inbox page where all my shows appeared, and with a very quick UI, I was able to choose what to do with each episode, whether that be adding it to the bottom of my queue, the top of the queue, archiving the episode, or even playing it immediately. Yes, you could sort of do something like this with Overcast, but you’d have to go through more taps to do this for each show and you’d also lose the ability to choose where in the listening queue each episode went.


Now Castro still exists, but I’ve been referring to it in the past tense this whole post because for me, Castro died a few years ago. For example, there was a bug where private feeds (Stratechery, Patreon feeds, etc.) that would not fetch new episodes unless I went into the show in Castro and pulled to refresh each feed manually. I reported this to Castro and their response was basically, “yeah we know that’s an issue, but we don’t plan on fixing it.” I don’t know if this has gotten better over the years, but that’s an example of a support email that leaves such a bad taste in your mouth that you drop the product entirely.


For what it’s worth, I think that a lot of nerds feel a connection to Castro in a way we don’t with many other apps, which is why even though most of us have moved on from Castro, we’re all still rooting for it to make a comeback.


NSA Buying Logs From Data Brokers

Charlie Savage (via Hacker News):

The National Security Agency buys certain logs related to Americans’ domestic internet activities from commercial data brokers, according to an unclassified letter by the agency.

The letter, addressed to a Democratic senator and obtained by The New York Times, offered few details about the nature of the data other than to stress that it did not include the content of internet communications.

Still, the revelation is the latest disclosure to bring to the fore a legal gray zone: Intelligence and law enforcement agencies sometimes purchase potentially sensitive and revealing domestic data from brokers that would require a court order to acquire directly.


In a letter to the director of national intelligence dated Thursday, the senator, Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, argued that “internet metadata” — logs showing when two computers have communicated, but not the content of any message — “can be equally sensitive” as the location data.

Thomas Claburn:

The NSA for years has been intercepting phone metadata and internet communications through bulk data collection programs under Section 702 of the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The rules are supposed to target foreign threats beyond America’s borders, yet communications between US persons and foreign nationals get captured as part of this process.

The acquisition of Americans’ personal data is even easier. This personal information flows from web and native apps on people’s devices to app makers and their marketing partners, and then to data brokers who sell it on to others, and it can be had by Uncle Sam’s agents without a warrant.


But recent action by the US Federal Trade Commission suggests that buying and selling of unlawfully obtained data will no longer be tolerated. The gray area has been repainted as a red line.

Tim Cushing (Hacker News):

Buying domestic data from data brokers is just something the government does all the time. Bypassing restraints enacted by the Supreme Court, federal agencies (along with local law enforcement agencies) are hoovering up whatever domestic data they can from private companies all too happy to be part of the problem.

Sure, the government can pretend the Third Party Doctrine applies here. But chances are that most of this data being collected by phone apps and other services isn’t being collected with the full knowledge of device users. This is the sort of thing that’s hidden in the deep end of Terms of Use boilerplate, suckering people out of all kinds of data because they made the mistake of assuming a seemingly-innocuous match-3 game wouldn’t attempt to ping their phone’s location and tie it to specific device IDs.

Bruce Schneier:

This is almost certainly illegal, although the NSA maintains that it is legal until it’s told otherwise.

Joseph Cox:

Hundreds of thousands of ordinary apps, including popular ones such as 9gag, Kik, and a series of caller ID apps, are part of a global surveillance capability that starts with ads inside each app, and ends with the apps’ users being swept up into a powerful mass monitoring tool advertised to national security agencies that can track the physical location, hobbies, and family members of people to build billions of profiles, according to a 404 Media investigation.

Via Nick Heer:

It does not seem possible to know for sure whether Patternz really processes ninety terabytes of data daily (PDF), for example, but the company claims it creates a direct link between online advertising networks and global surveillance for intelligence agencies. It does not sound far fetched.


Even if you believe targeted advertising is a boon for publishers — something which seems increasingly hard to justify — it has turned the open web into the richest and most precise spyware the world has ever known. That is not the correct trade-off.

Probably worth keeping an eye on a case in California’s Northern District, filed in 2021, which alleges the privacy problems of Google’s real-time bidding system amount to a contract breach.

Bruce Schneier:

The CFPB’s rules align with a key security idea: the decoupling principle. By separating which companies see what parts of our data, and in what contexts, we can gain control over data about ourselves (improving privacy) and harden cloud infrastructure against hacks (improving security). Officials at the CFPB have described the new rules as an attempt to accelerate a shift toward “open banking,” and after an initial comment period on the new rules closed late last year, Rohit Chopra, the CFPB’s director, has said he would like to see the rule finalized by this fall.

Right now, uncountably many data brokers keep tabs on your buying habits. When you purchase something with a credit card, that transaction is shared with unknown third parties. When you get a car loan or a house mortgage, that information, along with your Social Security number and other sensitive data, is also shared with unknown third parties. You have no choice in the matter. The companies will freely tell you this in their disclaimers about personal information sharing: that you cannot opt-out of data sharing with “affiliate” companies. Since most of us can’t reasonably avoid getting a loan or using a credit card, we’re forced to share our data. Worse still, you don’t have a right to even see your data or vet it for accuracy, let alone limit its spread.

The CFPB’s simple and practical rules would fix this. The rules would ensure people can obtain their own financial data at no cost, control who it’s shared with and choose who they do business with in the financial industry. This would change the economics of consumer finance and the illicit data economy that exists today.


Update (2024-02-05): Jordan Rose:

I don’t really get why the proposal is “it should be illegal for the government to buy this” rather than “it should be illegal for companies to sell it”. Even if the latter never gets passed because of regulatory capture, can’t it at least be the starting point?