Big Brother is watching

They know you take it with you wherever you go, that you won’t step outside the house without it, that if anything happened to it you wouldn’t know what to do with yourself. That may be why they use it to spy on you.

It sounds like the beginnings of a science fiction movie trailer. Only, in this case there’s nothing fiction about it.

big_brotherMobile application developer Joey Hess discovered on Wednesday that the Palm Pre – one of the most popular smartphones – sends data back to Palm. Not surprising in and of itself, but the data in question happens to be your location and your application usage… and it sends this without your permission.

This discovery had  neck hairs around the globe on end. What business did a company have tracking you like a stolen vehicle?

“I’m shocked that GPS location info is apparently being sent to Palm on a daily basis,” Hess told The Register. “It seems both unnecessary and a large privacy risk.”

There was a similar reaction to South Africa’s new RICA policy that requires registration of all Sim Cards by 2011, “That’s an invasion of privacy!”

Most people aren’t tech geniuses like Hess, but they are still able to put two and two together and realise that cellphones can be tracked… and when registered to a specific person, that person’s whereabouts and activities are made public.

Or are they?

It depends how you define “public”. No doubt a few years ago we would have considered the kind of things we put up on Facebook preposterous… advertising to the world at large who we’re dating, where we were last night… I have friends who still can’t believe I keep a blog. But in the case of Facebook it’s a trade-off. We decide to share that data in the hopes of obtaining some form of social capital in return. Isn’t it a trade-off when it comes to cellular technology as well?

Palm’s statement was that it collected the data in order to offer better services to its customers, using their locations to offer them local services on Google Maps. With the data obtained through monitoring which applications one used and for how long, Palm would be able to adjust its applications functionality to create better products.

cellphonespy1You may have the image of cellular providers as the jealous x-girlfriend trying to figure out exactly what you’re doing with your time, or the evil overlord who wants to monitor his minions, but in actual fact privacy in this sense became a thing of the past long ago. Every time you use a credit or debit card, every time you make a phone call, every time you run a search on Google, information is gathered about you.

The fact of the matter is, unlike the girlfriend, overlord or your Facebook friends, the cellular provider doesn’t actually care what you personally are doing and when. The data collected is statistical, and it can be useful.

According to, America has a “Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Enhanced 911 (E911) rule” that insists cellular providers track your location in order to provide emergency assistance. The site also mentions other ways such data collection could be useful for the user: Parents could track children’s location, employers could track their employees and you can use services such as Loopt and Google Latitude to keep track of friends. Is this all a violation of privacy?

You may point out that there is a difference. A very big difference. Something called “permission”. In all of the cases above permission has been granted. But then… in Palm’s case permission was also granted, with the signing of a privacy policy that stated:

“When you use location based services, we will collect, transmit, maintain, process, and use your location and usage data (including both real time geographic information and information that can be used to approximate location) in order to provide location based and related services, and to enhance your device experience. ” (courtesy of PCWorld).

We willingly sign these documents (sometimes without even reading them) because without signing them we cannot obtain our sparkly new top-of-the-range gadgets. It’s part of living in this technology-intoxicated world. It’s a trade-off.


~ by tallulahlucy on August 14, 2009.

3 Responses to “Big Brother is watching”

  1. who is big brother…?

  2. […] public at large Last week I spoke about the trade-off we make nowadays when it comes to our privacy. I would like to return to that subject […]

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