Creating Responsible Netizens

Where in the World are YOU? December 1, 2011

Filed under: dean — dean @ 2:00 am

I’ll start our discussion on privacy with a scenario inspired by a Washington Post (Ellen Nakashima). Close your eyes and envision a routine, typical day. Would any of these things happen?

  • You wake up in the morning feeling like P Diddy. You pull out your phone to check texts and possibly email if you have a smartphone.
  • You go to school and debate whether you should sit in the front seat or kick it in the back seat. If you are driven to school, chances are there is a GPS system in your or your parents’ car.
  • At school, you research online for a project using or to find information.
  • Throughout the afternoon while “doing your homework”, you check Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or other social networks.

In each of these scenarios, you leave behind traces that companies often aggregate and analyze using complex algorithms for various purposes that will be covered below.

Let’s start with the first possible scenario: using a smartphone. Earlier this year, Apple went under serious public scrutiny due to their actions in “Locationgate”.

Locationgate was essentially a scandal in which it was revealed that Apple iPhones had been tracking the location of users via GPS and WiFi. All this location data was stored inside an unencrypted file in the user’s phone. Apple at first denied that any of this was happening. In fact, Steve Jobs claimed in his signature brief emails that they didn’t and then proceeded to point the finger at Google’s competing Android platform. However, they eventually had to fess up and has since released a patch, claiming that the GPS tracking was to improve efficiency by caching locations and would remove it due to the aforementioned privacy concerns.

Okay, so Apple might have tracked user locations. So what? Even if we give Apple the benefit of the doubt and assume that they aren’t doing anything nefarious with that data, it’s easy to imagine the data being compromised by a third party – malware or spyware or a virus on the phone, in other words. We’ve certainly all heard of viruses on computers, but viruses are possible on phones as well.

Reading this with an Android, Windows, or Nokia phone feeling smug? Don’t get too comfortable. Just last week, news broke from a 25-year old coder named Trevor Eckhart that carriers included a piece of malware on a lot of phones called “Carrier IQ”. It’s a rootkit; essentially, it hides itself from the user, and has a lot of power over the phone. It was supposed to be for “troubleshooting purposes”, but there is no longer any option of opting out of its services. In practice, it slows down your phone. In theory, carriers could read your text messages and see what you search on the web.

If you’d like to read more about Carrier IQ, and how to stop it, check out this highly informative Lifehacker article!