Will we forgive Apple’s iPhone back door?

Remember Milli Vanilli, the late 80’s-early 90’s chart-topping pop duo eventually exposed as lip-syncing frauds? Being “economical with the truth” (whether outright lying or creating a breach of faith) will always be discovered, but whether there are consequences depends on how people perceive the untruth and how they are affected.

For example, I’ll bet that, like me, when you first saw a football game on television where they inserted into the picture a line across the field showing the line of scrimmage you were mighty impressed. What a cool way to augment reality! We were already used to all of the graphics that the networks had used to show the score, review statistics, highlight players and so on, but inserting the line of scrimmage as if it were real — wow.

The same technique became commonplace in other televised sports and has been used extensively in the last few summer and winter Olympics. And here’s the thing: No one would think that this kind of enhancement is in any way wrong or is done with any duplicitous intention. It supports the event and adds real value.

Now, just consider the same kind of overlay technology as used in the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics to fake a fireworks effect that would have been impossible to pull off in the real world.

For those of you who haven’t heard the story, here it is: People watching the Olympic opening ceremonies on television, including on the giant screens around the Beijing National Stadium (the “Bird’s Nest”), you would have seen what looked like a chain of 29 giant footprints apparently produced by fireworks marching across the sky from Tiananmen Square to the stadium (if you missed the show you can find the footprint sequence on MyTube).

The effect was spectacular! What an incredible concept. But it was a complete and shameless fraud, the Milli Vanilli of fireworks.

What was sad was that most people didn’t know they were seeing a fake. The TV networks didn’t make it clear what was going on (although whether they understood what they were being fed is in doubt), and the Chinese authorities only ‘fessed up after the fact. The consequences? Nothing of note because only people’s perceptions were being manipulated. The Chinese government has no shame. End of story.

But nearer home we have just witnessed some high-tech duplicity that could well have consequences. I’m referring to Apple’s “back door” in the latest version of the iPhone. This is how the back door works: You buy an iPhone and go to Apple’s App store and buy an application. Then one day, out of the blue, the application vanishes from your iPhone. No warning, no choice and probably no recourse. The iPhone has a back door that allows Apple to delete applications as it sees fit.

Now, according to Steve Jobs, Apple hasn’t used this “feature” yet. Jobs defended the need for it, saying that Apple “would be irresponsible not to have a lever like that to pull.”

There are two things wrong with this. First, if there’s a back door then it could be abused. I know Apple is really, really good at software engineering, but we all know that when you leave a back door, something is more or less guaranteed to creep in.

The second and bigger issue is that Apple didn’t tell people who bought the iPhone about this “feature.” I see this as a major breach of trust, but so far it appears people are either ignorant about it or indifferent to it, and thus Apple so far faces no consequences. I wonder how the corporate market is going to view this attribute of the iPhone?

So, here’s the thing: The Chinese fake fireworks were a breach of faith as it presented a falsely glorified image, but no one was actually harmed. The Apple iPhone back door and its nondisclosure is also a breach of faith, but one that could well cause major harm. We might forgive the Chinese, but can we forgive Apple? We never forgave Milli Vanilli.