eXtensions - Wednesday 16 May 2021


Wednesday Diversion: Fishing for Metadata; Apple rumors, Pluses and Problems; Apple and Google under Investigation on Several Fronts

By Graham K. Rogers


A DOJ grab of metadata using subpoenas and a grand jury also had gag orders for Apple and Microsoft, so they were unable to tell those affected that the Trump administration was on a fishing expedition. Apple hardware rumors, solutions and problems. Fallout from WWWDC. Big tech and government lust for control. Work from home fixes.

A story that began to emerge last month, really broke last Friday when the New York Times revealed a Department of Justice investigation into phone records of politicians and their acquaintances. Both Apple and Microsoft were subpoenaed to produce metadata from the use of phones by two elected officials and others. They were also served federal gag orders: Apple would usually tell someone if they had been served a warrant. The requests were for information (not images/emails) from the officials, their associates and family, including a minor. Also included was the White House Counsel who is presumably on Trump's side: this may show an element of paranoia.


The investigation, which included a Grand Jury, may have been started under the Trump Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, or AG Bill Barr (known as a fixer for President Bush) and Deputy AG Rosenstein. They all deny any knowledge. Some people are incredulous about this: how could one of them not know? Plausible deniability does not work here. Note that President Nixon's AG (John Newton Mitchell) went to prison for 19 months for multiple crimes after the Watergate break-in and subsequent investigation. Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment.

Neither Apple nor Microsoft knew who was being investigated, nor the reason or purpose. It now appears to have NOT been a criminal investigation (legal), but a political trawl for information when the Trump-Russia investigation was ongoing. A criminal investigation would have been legal and ethical (as long as it was not revenge). A witch-hunt is illegal and unethical and an abuse of power. This is an ongoing investigation now into who ordered this and more will be revealed. On Tuesday a Justice Department official, John Demers, quit amid the uproar over the records seizure (Michael Balsamo, AP in Irish Independent).

Keychain Access The aftermath of WWDC always produces some interesting information, particularly regarding the new operating systems as the beta versions are examined for unannounced gems. One sensible update to Monterey is the move of password controls from the Keychain Access app to a new section in System Preferences (Juli Clover, MacRumors).

There are other significant changes to the way passwords and such authorisations are handled. hoakley (The Eclectic Light Company) outlines several features that are not changing, while including comments on the way other parts will be altered. It is a little technical, but worth reading for the insights provided.

The new iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 have some interesting features too and one for the iPad particularly intrigues me as Filipe Espósito (9to5Mac) shows that the Files app will have a progress bar and partial support (read only) for NTFS. Files can be read, but it will not be possible to write data to a USB drive. He also adds that a user can select multiple files for actions.

iPad mini
Current iPad mini - Image courtesy of Apple

Another hardware rumor appeared at the end of last week, but this time concerning a future iPad mini. There has not been a revised version of this since 2019, which puts it in the target area, presuming Apple will continue the device. I hope so as it is particularly popular with students because of its size and general accessibility. Michael Simon (MacWorld) has a a look at some ideas from Jon Prosser on this. He suggests the Generation 6 iPad mini will be released with a makeover, something like the iPad Air: flat, with no Home button, and with the touch sensor relocated. A couple of other interesting points concern the port (USB-C) and a new, smaller Apple Pencil.

A few weeks ago there were reports that the SSD drives on the new M1 Macs were apparently writing far more SSD data than they should have. This could have led to disk failures faster than might usually be expected. Drives have a life and this can be shortened by overuse and this is what seemed to be happening with the new Macs. As some expected this was a problem not with the disks but with third party software that was not wholly compatible with Big Sur as it worked with the M1 chips. Joel Hruska (ExtremeTech) reports that this was corrected with the 11.4 update to macOS and it was confirmed that the issue was not with the disk writes but what the reports were displaying.

Apple has a problem on its hands with the delightful new iMacs. Several reports over the last few days show that some of these are arriving with crooked mountings (Joe Wituschek, iMore et al). This problem is not one that can be fixed by the customer and most certainly should have been spotted by quality control. I expect someone from Cupertino is already chewing the ears off the factory management. Some users are finding out about the problem after the 2-week return period and the skew level is not consistent, which could point to faulty machinery. This is a must-replace as far as Apple is concerned.

Apple iMac
Apple M1 iMac - Image courtesy of Apple

The large tech companies like Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google have been under pressure for a while from the authorities in several countries, each with their own agendas. What the politicians seem to worry about most, although they cloak it in different terms, is that each of these corporations have too much power in their different ways. All these politicians want the mega-companies to pay more taxes, but it is the politicians who write the tax laws - along with the loopholes that allow smart accountants and lawyers to move the money around to the best advantage of the shareholders: tax avoidance rather than evasion, which is illegal.

Both Apple and Google have come under fire from the EU particularly over their use of app stores, although with its higher levels of controls on apps and the way fees are distributed to developers, Apple is seen in some quarters as the bad guy. As someone who uses the App Store often, I am quite happy with the way the store is run and the way I rarely see a bad app. Developers of paid apps (not the free ones) have 30% deducted in the main. There are nowadays other levels of deductions, but this still does not satisfy some developers who seemingly want the Developer benefits, access to users, and the ability to distribute through the App Store, for free.

The EU is at the fore of the move to force change here; and none is more determined than EU Competiton Commissioner Margrethe Vestager who has crossed swords with Apple before, most notably over over a $15 billion Irish tax bill. She lost, although this has led to a change in the laws, as is right. Now she is working on "ending the App Store as we know it" (Patently Apple).

In an interview with Kara Swisher, in which the Spotify and Epic cases were mentioned, Vestager makes the preposterous suggestion that the solution lies in a second App Store although there are no practical suggestions as to how this might work and who might run this. While the theory is to increase competition (or reduce Apple control), it all smacks of a determination to do something without considering the effects of such a forced change. Splitting things up rarely works as intended in the long run.

Apple Store

The USA and the EU are not the only ones fearful of mega-corporations. Perhaps they have been watching too many movies. While I would reject any form of personal control by companies (we already have some), it would help if the politicians would do their jobs properly and reduce corruption. Japan too has jumped on this bandwagon of trying to castrate Apple and Google with regard to smartphone use in the Land of the Rising Sun. I am a bit perplexed here as Apple makes the iPhone and while Google does make the Pixel, the real difference is in the OS: Android and iOS; with Android having a larger user base worldwide. The two have 90% of the Japanese market (Patently Apple) and I am trying for the life of me to think what other OS is available in practical terms. Not Windows for sure as Redmond gave up a while back, as did the excellent Blackberry.

The Japanese market is odd in that it was superior to outside for many years and phones developed by the major companies there had features that some manufacturers, such as Apple, were unable to provide. There was some increase in iPhone availability when SoftBank opened the market for Apple, but this has been diluted a little by the arrival particularly of Chinese-made phones (Statista). It may be that the growth of Apple and Android in Japan may be partly due to stagnation of the home product and this look at the higher availability is a combination of protectionism and shutting the stable door too late.

To follow this, the British are also joining this government bandwagon with a "market study" into whether "Apple's and Google's "effective duopoly" over the supply of mobile operating systems, app stores, and web browsers is harming competition." Market dominance is one of the keywords here, not only in terms of OS but the idea of competition in the app market, adding to the idea that governments should not meddle in what they do not understand (Brandy Betz, Seeking Alpha).

Mac mini
Mac mini et al - Working from home

The range of devices at my condo during lockdown includes my Mac mini, which I had brought home in case I needed to use it. I initially had 3 Macs, an iPad, 2 iPad Pro devices and the iPhone, so I was well covered. With the MacBook Air, the Mac mini was redundant so I turned it off. When I sent the MacBook Air to a friend, I kept working with the other devices and found that I did not need to restart the Mac mini. Last weekend, as there were several updates I was aware of, with some apps also probably needing attention, I started the Mac mini again. I clicked on the account I would use, moving the cursor with the Trackpad which connected immediately. The wireless keyboard was a different matter.

I pressed the button on the right of the keyboard to make sure it could be recognized, it there was a single faint green flash of the light. I took the two batteries out and replaced them in a different order. This did produce more regular green light flashes, but they were so brief it indicated to me that the batteries could need replacing. I did have spares and as soon as I had put a couple in, the green light was strong and the panel appeared on the screen to show that the keyboard was now linked.

Of course, there was an update to Big Sur (11.4) shown in System Preferences, but while I was updating the iCloud settings and changing other things, 7 apps including iWork, updated in the background. I decided to wait until a Time Machine backup had been completed, but as this had not been done for a while, it was stuck on Preparing, for a while. It eventually finished and I updated the Mac.

Apple AirTags

I have also recently acquired a pack of 4 AirTags although so far I am only using one: a keychain. I have a couple of the Loops too, but I am not really sure how to put these to the best use. My backpack and tote only have external handles that would make the AirTag obvious. If anyone was stealing one of these, a cut with a knife would lose the link forever. The same would happen with my cameras. These only work with honest people. If I wanted to track anything secretly - as a form of security - the AirTags would need some way in which they could be hidden inside. I am looking for ways in which this could be implemented other than sewing them into the lining.

I also seem to have mislaid one of the loops. They are not easy to find if they do not have an AirTag attached. It is here somewhere. I took it out of the box to see how it might work with the bags and now it I cannot find it. It will turn up. They always do.

Apple Loop

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. After 3 years writing a column in the Life supplement, he is now no longer associated with the Bangkok Post. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)



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