Throughout the past years there have been several high-profile occasions when apps were in the news for questionable tracking strategies. Even applications that do not use novel means of compromising our privacy are gobbling up increasing amounts of data while their creators cash in on the profits obtained from selling the user’s digital life^ to the highest bidder. At the receiving end of this deluge of spyware are we, the people.
Even for those of us that do read the list of permissions an app requests upon installation, it is hard to avoid installing certain apps because they come with other features that we need. It’s an old trick that is akin to the Trojan horse. This is how these dubious app creators get in our back yard: by offering something that is 90% useful and 10% spyware, but which must be accepted as a whole.
Devious solutions for the same old need
Smartphone espionage has gotten very clever as of late. Check these two^ stories^ about ultrasonic tracking. According to one research, hundreds of Android apps with an install base in the millions include a library that is used for this purpose. The way this works is by listening to ultrasonic audio “beacons” implanted in advertisements. Humans can’t normally hear sound in this range, but smartphones’ microphones can.
When a user has one such application running and an advertisement that includes an ultrasonic marker plays on TV or anywhere around the user (for example radio or an ultrasound-emitting advertisement panel in a shopping mall), the app can make an association between the user and the played content. This can be used for simple tasks such as sending a unique ID back to a service which then sends a shop’s deals to a user, but it can just as well include a lot of other information about the device and its owner.
Some of the things this system can achieve are rather worrying. For example, it can be used for determining a user’s (approximate) location even if the GPS is turned off or out of range. This can be done by having a particular advertisement panel emit a unique ultrasound beacon. This can later be used to determine when the user is in its proximity. The system can also be used to track a user’s TV-watching habits without consent. Some of these uses are legitimate though, like pushing advertisement and coupons to somebody that has given their consent for using this “feature”. A few such apps disclose the tracking prominently. But this is usually not the case.
More recently, the Uber app was found to be capable to record portions of the iPhone screen^. The company defended itself saying that this was done in order to send images with maps to the iWatch (using the iPhone to render the map because the iWatch lacked the required performance). There’s a gazillion ways this can go wrong not if but when hackers manage to leverage this capability in order to steal passwords and other sensitive information. The feature was reportedly removed but it still shows exactly what the smartphone really is. And there’s no way to sugar coat this…
The smartphone is a surveillance device
Economically, it is used by corporations to mine data^ out of people and use it to manipulate them into buying products. The smartphone grew into a fascinating tool for mass surveillance because it comes with a bunch of features that users really want. I mean, it’s really nice to have a browser and a video camera available at all times, right? Except that all these “free” apps are just a gateway for companies that are tracking users ever since advertisers figured how to use our digital lives against us and our vulnerable minds.
Currently, the goal most of these companies have is to get us online for as much time as possible. As for the camera and the other (many) sensors inside a phone, we might end up not being the only ones controlling them. There are innumerable cases of this technology being used with criminal intent. There’s only need for one backdoor to take control of our devices and that backdoor’s existence is ensured by the producers of these devices.
Governments will of course not oppose this (they’ll even encourage it^) because the greatest concern of a government is to maintain its appearance as a legitimate organization. Investigative journalists^ and whistle-blowers^ have greatly damaged governments^ and corporations as of late. By increasing surveillance capabilities under various pretexts, governments and corporations hope to prevent the next public relations scandal. I’m not even blaming them; they’re just trying to survive^. But people who realize they’ve been sold behind closed doors won’t remain the loyal followers that these entities need in order to justify their existence.
To make things easier for themselves, governments will make sure they also have access^ to whatever technologies are deployed on these devices. One problem, however, is that the citizens of one country may use devices produced in another country. What is the percentage of electronics we manufacture in Asia? And then there’s this thing about hardware backdoors^.
A few days ago I was waiting in line for an old lady that wanted to change the battery of her phone. It was a keypad phone of the kind considered modern 15 years ago. The image of her sitting there in front of the cashier will stay with me for a long time because, in an instant, my mind ran through the entire planned obsolescence racket^ and understood the inevitable verdict that will be given by the system this woman fell prey to.
In the past years I’ve become increasingly aware of the hideousness of hyper-consumerism^. But this situation has put a face on it. Of course, the shop couldn’t help her. The only option for the old lady was to switch to some other phone, most probably with a non-replaceable battery, so she can be forced to change it every few years. Not to mention she must adapt to new software every time it happens and probably be at the receiving end of automatic updates that will change features in her phone, which is exactly what an old lady wants from her device (not!).
With corporations making money from data and with governments drooling over the private lives of its citizens, it’s no wonder that phones with replaceable batteries have disappeared off the market (using “water resistance” as a cheap excuse). Yes, there is a likely connection between forcing people to upgrade their phones and the need to make sure that those people voluntarily carry around the latest and greatest in spying technology in their pocket. Hey, some people will even queue for days and pay outrageous amounts for these things.
Reasons & solutions
But why is it like this? The answer is terrible in its cruel simplicity. These are the rules of the Human Game at this point in time. What’s terrible is that even though we are directly responsible for creating and tolerating these rules, we also face an extremely powerful opposition to change them. The machine has grown into a huge, lumbering beast whose behavior harks back to our most ancient instincts, such as the imperious need to survive. Corporations need to earn money. They exist for this purpose and this purpose alone. So it is no wonder they buy governments and do whatever it takes in order to survive in the jungle of a (stock) market^ that is the very heart of the machine.
Can this all change? Of course it can. And the solution is wonderful in its beautiful simplicity. We just need to change the criteria with which we purchase goods and services and with which we vote. It’s as simple as that. We need to change the rules of the Human Game. Stock market processes can be changed to encourage responsible and long-term investment. Governments can be encouraged to invest into research and education. Corporations will have no alternative but to transform themselves into entities that value the environment and respect their customers. Because otherwise, nobody will purchase what they’re peddling. There’s only need for one commercial entity in every field to prove that this works. This will generate a mass extinction of the old business model. And it’s us, the consumers, who can trigger and sustain this.
The very reason I write these words is because I strongly believe in this change. And what’s beautiful is that the change doesn’t even need to be sudden (and therefore potentially violent). Actually, it can’t be sudden because this modification in people’s mentality will not occur overnight. It will take time until more of us are ready to champion this cause and for it to spread. But it will happen. Of that, I am sure. I just wish that it will happen before another disaster strikes our civilization.
In closing, here are a few other factoids from the war against privacy (I noticed that ZDNet has a pretty good section about all this):