The Arcology Garden

Every move you make, I’ll be watching you: Privacy implications of the Apple U1 chip and ultra-wideband


Apple and many others are pushing Technology which on a paper-thin surface is about enabling interesting location features for users, but is going to be much more useful for locational-surveillance by marketing and analytics surveillance capitalism.

In its recent iPhone launch, Apple introduced the U1 ultra-wideband chip in the iPhone 11. Ultra-wideband communications use channels that have a bandwidth of 500Mhz or more, with transmissions at a low power. […] On the iPhone 11 Pro product page, Apple says, “The new Apple‑designed U1 chip uses Ultra Wideband technology for spatial awareness — allowing iPhone 11 Pro to understand its precise location relative to other nearby U1‑equipped Apple devices. It’s like adding another sense to iPhone, and it’s going to lead to amazing new capabilities”. For now, the features available to the U1 chip are restricted to “[pointing] your iPhone toward someone else’s, and AirDrop will prioritize that device so you can share files faster”.

Basically: this chip blasts a very high-bandwidth/high-power radio wave, which others can listen to and calculate how long it took for that wave to reach the receiver. This time of flight is very close to the speed of light but it's measurable and calculable, and the chip can say "how far am i away from any of these devices" and report that to an authority. Given a store full of them, or billboards or trashcans or public wifi points, that authority can figure out exactly which brand of tissues a user looked at, and whether they saw a billboard showing that beforehand. All you need is an SDK which is deployed to as many applications as possible, and as many anchor points as you can afford, and you get passive near constant location surveillance that can be tied to individual users.

A huge Privacy problem, and a big sign that Informed Consent is a canard. Nominally, everyone who is a victim of this surveillance "opted in", as if they ever could have made a choice. This is an end-run on location privacy in a time where people are becoming more aware of such risks, we should be moving much more quickly than perhaps we are capable of at this point: it's already happening, and only Improving1:

What makes the current generation of UWB chips stand out is that for the first time they will be deployed in mobile phones, which for a lot of people is an inseparable part of their daily routine. While it is promoted by Apple as just another sensor to “Share. Find. Play. More precisely than ever,“ this technology has the power to disrupt existing societal norms. Suddenly businesses will be able to track an individual’s location within their stores down to the centimeter, which gives them the power to track which products you look at in real-time. Similar to the debated facial recognition technology, UWB localization offers a new capability to capture and ultimately profile identities of a user. Essentially, the new chip is a marketer’s dream in a box. Shops already track your purchases, leading to cases like the infamous 2012 case where Target unintentionally divulged a teen’s pregnancy to her father. When a store has UWB-enabled access points, it will be easy to monitor a phone’s location indoors and track what you considered purchasing in addition to what you actually purchase. Even without UWB, Cisco already has a feature that lets stores track your presence via phone WiFi, “to engage users and optimize marketing strategies”.

UWB technology could disrupt our preconceived privacy expectations about how our location data is shared and used. In a recent empirical study Martin, Kirsten E., and Helen Nissenbaum show that “that tracking an individual’s place – home, work, shopping – is seen to violate privacy expectations, even without directly collecting GPS data, that is, standard markers representing location in technical systems.”

This is true of all privacy violations: in – Americans and Privacy we learn that 36% of Americans don't read privacy policies, and we believe that Privacy Policies are user-hostile. We know from that research as well that more than half of Americans don't even believe that companies are adhering to their own terms and policies. We know that people are being wholesale forced in to this data-slavery as a base-cost to existing in the new digital society we signed for on the dotted line. We know that this is adversely affecting people of color due to our country's history of surveilling and harassing communities of color, and with less access to resources or even the ability to opt out.