Archive for March 28, 2024

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Facebook’s Project Ghostbusters

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai (tweet, via Nick Heer):

In 2016, Facebook launched a secret project designed to intercept and decrypt the network traffic between people using Snapchat’s app and its servers. The goal was to understand users’ behavior and help Facebook compete with Snapchat, according to newly unsealed court documents. Facebook called this “Project Ghostbusters,” in a clear reference to Snapchat’s ghost-like logo.


The document includes internal Facebook emails discussing the project.

“Whenever someone asks a question about Snapchat, the answer is usually that because their traffic is encrypted we have no analytics about them,” Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg wrote in an email dated June 9, 2016, which was published as part of the lawsuit. “Given how quickly they’re growing, it seems important to figure out a new way to get reliable analytics about them. Perhaps we need to do panels or write custom software. You should figure out how to do this.”

Facebook’s engineers solution was to use Onavo, a VPN-like service that Facebook acquired in 2013. In 2019, Facebook shut down Onavo after a TechCrunch investigation revealed that Facebook had been secretly paying teenagers to use Onavo so the company could access all of their web activity.


Later, according to the court documents, Facebook expanded the program to Amazon and YouTube.

Jason Kint (PDF):

Yellow highlight indicates redactions just lifted in nine unsealed plaintiffs briefs in private antitrust lawsuit. Wild stuff.


You can read the press back in Jan 2019 spoon fed by Facebook PR to friendlies with no mentions of decrypting SSL then compare to this internal email below sent to Facebook’s most senior executives - “currently includes SSL decryption”…


court also unsealed (in yellow) a brief re: Netflix whose CEO sat on Facebook’s board. The lawsuit allegations are Netflix was one of the companies where Facebook backed off competing in exchange for data to boost its ad targeting signals.

Jesse Squires:

When I worked at Instagram/FB, I routinely saw presentations with data harvested from the Onavo “VPN”.

I remember asking “how do we know this user data about YouTube and SnapChat?”

The answer: “Onavo.”

I still don’t know how this wasn’t illegal and anti-competitive. Surely it was.


Update (2024-03-29): Karl Bode:

Fast forward to 2020, when Facebook users Sarah Grabert and Maximilian Klein filed a class action lawsuit against Facebook for spying on users and lying about it. And here we are; maybe Facebook will see accountability, maybe not. It’s a dice roll in a country that doesn’t take consumer privacy seriously.

Scharon Harding (Hacker News):

As spotted via Gizmodo, a letter was filed on April 14 in relation to a class-action antitrust suit that was filed by Meta customers, accusing Meta of anti-competitive practices that harm social media competition and consumers. The letter, made public Saturday, asks a court to have Reed Hastings, Netflix’s founder and former CEO, respond to a subpoena for documents that plaintiffs claim are relevant to the case. The original complaint filed in December 2020 [PDF] doesn’t mention Netflix beyond stating that Facebook “secretly signed Whitelist and Data sharing agreements” with Netflix, along with “dozens” of other third-party app developers. The case is still ongoing.

The letter alleges that Netflix’s relationship with Facebook was remarkably strong due to the former’s ad spend with the latter and that Hastings directed “negotiations to end competition in streaming video” from Facebook.

One of the first questions that may come to mind is why a company like Facebook would allow Netflix to influence such a major business decision. The litigation claims the companies formed a lucrative business relationship that included Facebook allegedly giving Netflix access to Facebook users’ private messages[…]

Update (2024-04-01): Matthew Green:

This thing Facebook did — running an MITM on Snapchat and other competitors’ TLS connections via their Onavo VPN — is so deeply messed up and evil that it completely changes my perspective on what that company is willing to do to its users.

John Gruber:

In 2018 Apple removed Onavo from the App Store, but the fact that Facebook was using Onavo in this way was known a year earlier.

See also: Internal Tech Emails, Hacker News.

Giving Up on Siri and HomePod

Jim Dalrymple:

Siri has done what no person could for 30 years: Make me stop using an Apple product.

I am giving up on my 8 HomePods/minis out of the sheer frustration of trying to use Siri.

I’ve been in tech for 30 years and this is one of the worst technologies ever and only getting worse

The Dalrymple Report:

We also talk about my continued frustration with Siri and why I’m so upset with Apple.

Storm Garelli:

When the HomePods were first launched, Apple said the onboard Siri had deep knowledge of music.

5 years later it still pronounces live albums as if “live” rhymes with “give”. And it still thinks Rush had an album called “Two Thousand, One Hundred, and Twelve”.

Most basically, it just doesn’t work very well for requesting music, even for purchases that it actually has access to.

Christian Selig:

While I’m complaining about Siri devices, it still blows my mind that HomePod, a product that has existed for over half a decade and is marketed as a speaker for your Mac, cannot pause audio in Apple’s own apps without a 5 second delay

Josh Johnson:

I honestly think Apple should kill the Siri brand. I’m not sure it can recover from the universal understanding that it’s just not good. Launch an LLM-powered assistant that actually does things, call it something else. Let Siri die.

Ty Belisle:

Man, you’re right. I’ve thought they should make a very bold “Siri 2.0” announcement, but it’s true the name Siri is so spoiled that they should ditch it. Would also allow them to come up with a new 3-syllable name (like “Alexa” - less accidental triggers, but still one word).


Update (2024-03-29): Craig Grannell:

You know Apple has a tech problem when your 9yo is complaining about the HomePod you bought to replace a first gen Echo. (She’s unhappy how Siri “isn’t fun”, “doesn’t give you good answers” and that it is triggered far too often when you’re just talking. I’m also deeply unimpressed with it from a playback standpoint. Takes far too long to respond to devices.

Nick Heer:

Of course, that is not what Siri is tripped-up by — it transcribes me perfectly most of the time. But it delivers utter nonsense.

Sometimes, after I ask Siri to reply to a message, it will ask which contact details to use instead of just sending the message to the phone number or email address from which it came. Just now, I asked Siri how much three tablespoons of butter weighs, and it responded in litres. This is basic shit.


Something I cannot help but wonder is whether Siri would still be so bad if users could pick something else. That goes for any platform and any product, by the way — what if you could pick Google’s assistant on an Amazon device, or Siri on a Google device? I am not suggesting this is how it ought to be. But what if these voice assistants actually had to compete with each other directly instead of in the context of the products in which they are sold? Would that inspire more rapid development, higher quality, and more confidence from users?

John Gruber:

First impressions really matter, but in Siri’s case, it’s over a decade of lived experience. If I were at Apple and believed the company finally had a good voice assistant experience, I’d push for a new brand.

See also: The iPhoneography Podcast and The Dalrymple Report.

Update (2024-04-01): Mike Rockwell:

To add my two cents, I’ve disabled “Hey Siri” on every device in the house. I didn’t really find myself triggering it accidentally often, but any number of false positives is enough to be annoying.

Update (2024-04-11): Jim Dalrymple:

So I was one of the morons that bought into the “you can use HomePods for your home theater” bullshit. Now I’m stuck with HomePods in my home theater.

Siri Regressions in iOS 17

For many years, I’ve been saying “Hey Siri, remember to x” to create reminders on my iPhone (to be transferred to OmniFocus). Sometimes it would have trouble with the “x,” but it would always create a reminder. Now, this only works some of the time: sometimes it creates a reminder, but sometimes it creates a note. I have not seen any other documentation of this change, and what’s especially strange is that the behavior is not consistent. I can say the exact same thing twice in a row and end up with one reminder and one note. I tried to look up how Apple intends it to work and found only this:

You can ask Siri to schedule a reminder for you on your iOS device or your Apple Watch. Here are a few examples:

  • “Remind me to feed the dog every day at 7:30 a.m.”
  • “Remind me when I get home to check the mail.”
  • “Remind me when I leave here to stop by the grocery store.”
  • “Remind me tomorrow at 3:00 p.m. to call Tara.”

Indeed, “remind me” seems to always create a reminder. I’m trying to switch, but it’s taking a while for me to get used to saying that. But what happened to “remember to”? I don’t see any documentation from Apple about that. The notes documentation only mentions “Start a new note”. There are lots of third-party sites confirming my memory that “Remember to” used to create reminders.

I don’t like “Remind me” because, for many short reminders, “Remind me x” or “Remind me to x” sounds ungrammatical.

“Remember” is also problematic in that sometimes if I tell it to remember a podcast (meaning that I want a reminder to listen to that podcast) it will tell me that it has subscribed me to the podcast—only it did not actually do so in either Overcast or in Apple Podcasts.

Even with “Remind me,” Siri has the same old problems:

Alan Jacobs:

A significant change in Siri dictation over the past few months: commas. Commas that I don’t ask for. Lots and lots of commas. This has made dictation effectively unusable for me, and I wonder whether it’s time for me to start looking for a different phone.


for years i used to say “balcony” or “dining table light” to Siri, and it would just toggle the lights.

a few weeks ago it forgot how to do that. now it always confirms “do i turn it on or off?”. it’s literally getting more and more stupid

Joseph Bella:

It is astounding how bad it is. Even things that used to work fine like asking Siri to send a text message now don’t seem to work consistently anymore. Sometimes she asks me if I want to use the phone number or email, and other times it just tries to call the person. Sigh.


Update (2024-03-29): Dave B.:

I encountered a weird bug with Siri the other day that I couldn’t help but wonder if it was the result of LLM testing.


How would it get 555 Easy Street? That’s conflating the data from two separate fields in the contact. That is not a normal Siri screw-up, as all the info is coded into the contact and I’ve never had an issue.

With this, it almost felt like Siri’s mapping directions tried to use an LLM to read the contact and comprehend the destination (and mess up in the process), rather than simply pulling the data from the relevant field.

Damien Petrilli:

Siri is one of the obvious case of Apple monopoly abuse. No way they would have been able to keep it in that state for so long if you could change the assistant system wise.