Picking and choosing our privacy concerns


After I signed the lease for my first year in an off-campus apartment, I leafed through the document, convinced that I must have missed something – that I’d accidentally signed away my life in order to break free from the SLU housing apparatus. One statement caught my eye.

“In the event that the lessee wishes to vacate his or her unit, they must pay a lease termination fee and find someone to take over the remaining monthly payments in said lease,” it stated, to the best of my memory. “No external circumstance – not even an act of God – can prevent the payment of said termination fee when lessee violates the terms of signed agreement.”

Oh really?

So even God – who defeated Pharaoh, parted the Red Sea and led the freed Israelites to the Promised Land – is bound by this $200 lease termination fee? If there were leases in first century Palestine, I assume that Jesus would’ve had some problems with this page, which he would have had to sign to secure that one room bungalow he shared with Mary and Joseph near the Sea of Galilee. “Does the management here know that I can walk on water?” he might have thought.

And yet, there were my initials, scrawled on the bottom of the page. I had assented to this challenge of the Almighty, to this heresy of a lease.

This, though, is not uncommon: approving of things we don’t truly understand. And this is why the recent showdown between Apple Inc. and the FBI over the encryption of a locked iPhone, which was owned by one of the perpetrators of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, CA, is confounding.

We, society, sign off on things all the time – we don’t look at our credit card receipts before we sign them, we click “update all apps” on our phones without reading the terms of agreement and we never read the instructions for the IKEA furniture we buy. We’re a trusting people who often don’t give a damn about the fine print – that is, until it has the potential to violate our civil liberties. And only then when we’re told of this potential danger, which is what Apple did for us in this case.

In a letter posted on Apple’s website, the company’s CEO, Tim Cook, wrote, “Customers expect Apple and other technology companies to do everything in our power to protect their personal information, and at Apple we are deeply committed to safeguarding their data.” Do customers really “expect Apple and other technology companies” to have this role? It seems unlikely; Apple could be slipping things into its software use agreements without you even knowing it. When we tap that “accept” button for the latest version of iOS, what’s to say that we’re not agreeing to let Apple limit the music we store on its devices to only the country genre (the worst genre, an offense to music everywhere) or giving permission to let Apple insert the winky face emoji into all of our messages?

In fact, those terms of agreement – the annoying messages that seem to pop up whenever you’re trying to do something that your computer has been reminding you to do for the past few months – like install a software update – are often written in unflattering ways, in a manner that seeks to obfuscate.

Take, for example, the type set of these agreements. Large sections of them are often written in all capital letters. In an essay titled “Letter case and text legibility in normal and low vision,” published on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website, Aries Arditi and Jianna Cho write, “There is conventional wisdom, supported by some evidence and logic within the fields of typography and cognitive science, that asserts that text set in mixed uppercase and lowercase is more legible than all uppercase (all capital letters). Typographers generally point to the fact that word shape is more distinctive with mixed and lowercase than it is with uppercase … arguably making words constructed with them more distinctive due to variation in the height of word contours.”

In other words, perhaps Apple doesn’t really want you to read its terms of agreement. The use of all capital letters – as if the company were shouting at you – could be a form of impairment; maybe Apple really is trying to hide something from you. Maybe they are trying to force country music on us.

The city of New York, for one, agrees with this capital-letters-confuse argument. In 2010, it decided to change all of its street signs to lowercase letters. As Andrew Phillips and Pete Donohue reported in the New York Daily News, “The Federal Highway Administration says the switch [to lowercase] will improve safety because drivers identify the words more quickly when they’re displayed that way – and can sooner return their eyes to the road.”

The point: if we’re going to get upset about the FBI trying to break into an iPhone – an action, it should be noted, which had national security in mind – in a very isolated, does-not-happen-very-often case, then we should be more vigilant of privacy at all times. Don’t cry wolf only because the story made the news. Pay attention yourself – take an hour and read those term agreements, capital letters and all.

In his letter to customers, Cook says, “For years, cryptologists and national security experts have been warning against weakening encryption. Doing so would hurt only the well-meaning and law-abiding citizens who rely on companies like Apple to protect their data.”

Maybe these cryptologists and national security experts should be warning us about ourselves, about our propensity to click “accept” without looking at the terms – about the ease with which we sign the lease without reading it.

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