The TRApp Trap: the threats of Telescreen-Running Applications

Alexandre Oliva

I've noticed a worrysome pattern, in Brazil, wherein companies and even governments entice users to install apps on pocket telescreening devices (user-carried versions of the telescreens in George Orwell's 1984; also known as smart mobile telephones, portable surveillance and tracking devices, or Stalin's dream) by advertising benefits to customers over the same services delivered through a web browser, if indeed the latter remains available.

As Big Bad Wolf disguised as grandma would respond, "my TRApps are so big to see you better, dear, and to hold you tighter." That's surveillance capitalism at work. But do they have any teeth?

First, allow me detail my observations. It's not just multiple utilities, private businesses and governments advertising they now have apps on both major (nonfree) mobile TRApp stores, that offer similar services to those already available on a web site, but now without the alleged hassle of authenticating every time. It's not just that, while you hold on the phone waiting for a human attendant, recorded messages are played insisting for you to test the TRApp.

What catches my attention is when online merchants offer significant discounts, store credit or free shipping, but only if you make the purchase in the TRApp, rather than their web shop. That gas station chains offer discounts when you pay for your fuel using their TRApp rather than even cash or bank transfer. When banks want you to use their TRApps so bad that they won't just stop adding features to the web site, as if it was legacy abandonware, but will discontinue features that used to be available on the web site, for no reason other than to force you into their TRApps.

Various government agencies now issue virtual documents, such as id card, driver's and car license, voter id, proof of military service and of vaccination, proof of purchases, the list goes on and on... but though they look essentially the same as their paper equivalents, and several of them contain even QR codes for validation, some of them are only valid when displayed by the official TRApp. Taking and carrying a picture of the paper document won't do, even when a paper copy of the document would!

Most businesses and government agencies had to adopt online customer/citizen attention after the COVID-19 pandemic started. Many now offer chatbots to get the interaction started, but several insist you use their own TRApp for that. Others require you, for no reason, to have a phone number and an account with a third-party messaging TRApp to get their service. I'd have complained about that to the consumer protection office, but I didn't because I learned they were only holding audiences with Zoom. Oh, the irony!

Recently, the federal government launched, a unified portal for government services to citizens. Though there is a web site under that name, there are also TRApps on both major TRApp stores, and many of the services are only available to users TRApped in the duopoly of unrooted freedom-depriving mobile operating systems.

Why would businesses insist on TRApps, to the point of seemingly sacrificing their profits, when web interactions would do? They won't disclose their ulterior motives, so we can only speculate. Could it be that most of the target audience is presumed or known to carry pocket telescreening devices, and web browsers for those dominant (double meaning intended) platforms suck? Could it be that TRApps provide higher user engagement than web sites? Could it be that developers of TRApps have become cheaper or easier to find than web developers? Could it be that suppliers of TRApps and mobile operating systems are driving this trend, and that they are in bed with "such Big Data, grandma!"? Could it be that, like Pinocchio's nose, the more they lie to us, the bigger their collected data about us grows?

Imposing freedom-depriving software has long been used as a means to control users' computing and, ultimately, to control the users themselves. It used to be the case that nonfree software running locally was less dangerous to users, freedom-wise, than software running on somebody else's computer, under somebody else's control, a computing malpractice presented as powered by heavenly magical mist to users with clouded judgment. The reason for this difference was that you could keep the locally-running software from sharing your data or getting new commands from the mothership by unplugging your computer from the network (don't try that with a pocket telescreening device, Winston!), whereas you had to give your data to the remote program without a chance to know what's done with it: such computing processes are covered by a thick mist. You don't even get binary programs to reverse engineer, reimplement, or run at will, remaining at the mercy of the service provider.

Ironically, this differece does not apply to most TRApps, that are little more than a front-end, a tentacle controlled by remote brains. They bring into the local computer the lack of user control typical of misty computing, while escaping the browser sandboxing that limited, even if just a little, the amount of abuse the remote programs could impose on their victims.

Despite elaborate permission systems offered by major mobile operating systems, TRApps often ask for and get permissions over seemingly legitimate purposes, but one can hardly ever tell whether they abuse the granted permissions without the freedom to study the source code. If they're found to abuse the granted permissions, one can hardly ever fix that without the freedom to adapt them so that, on the user's computer, with the user's data plan or network conection, they serve the user rather than some third party who controls them remotely.

Consumers are entitled to know what is in products they acquire, even if as a requirement to receive services, and to use their own property as they see fit. Businesses should not abuse consumers, not even by reframing or turning them into products. Requiring us to give up our freedom and privacy to use (or be used by) their service is abusive, unacceptable business practice.

Now, it's not everybody that has the skills to audit or modify code, so consumers also need the freedom to share every such program with someone they trust to study it, adapt it, and improve it for them. Summing it up, consumers need software to be free software.

The lack of these freedoms is an even more egregious offense when it comes to software used to interact with the government. Nonfree software constrains behavior, not only of the computer, but also of the user. "The system won't allow it" is often given as a reason, or rather excuse, to not abide by a citizen's reasonable request. Code becomes law, as Lawrence Lessig wrote, but democratic law is supposed to be public and transparent, available for the people's scrutiny, and adopted through transparent democratic processes, whereas rules imposed through secret nonfree code lack the transparency and legitimacy required of democratic powers: the secrecy of the source code implies the rules are opaque to the public, and came to be through opaque and undemocratic processes, that can seldom be challenged and fixed. Democratic governments must not impose such illegitimate rules on anyone, let alone on their own citizens.

There is yet another very undesirable consequence of the push from WWW standards-based interactions to TRApps: it reinforces and strengthens the duopoly of nonfree mobile operating systems and their TRApp stores. Both big players ("such big players, grandma!") engineer their systems to control the users, to make sure the suppliers have more control over the devices than their buyers and presumed owners. This may be good for those who lay the TRApps, but it's very dangerous and harmful to the paying customers they wish to capture.

It would surely be in the best interest of societies to enable other mobile operating systems to be introduced, that respect users and grant them full control over their devices. Depending on TRApps that lock users to either preexisting competitor, and on cooperation from their curated but incurably anti-competitive TRApp stores are major impediments to such desirable developments. Oligopolies are bad enough for consumers, but walking down a path that inescapably locks us to a duopoly is far worse!

“Wow, grandma, such a big deal!” “Yes, dear,” answers the actual grandmother, “a big deal with big and ugly teeth. So we should all make a big stink about TRApps, dear!“

Copyright 2022 Alexandre Oliva

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