A recent article by Bruce Schneier outlined many of the issues that have been bothering me about the relationships that we have with the companies that build and develop our smartphones, tablets, online applications and operating systems.
I don’t have any Apple devices, but I spend much of my day using Google/Android, Windows and Facebook systems and Amazon makes regular deliveries to my office. The relationships between these entities probably look magical to some people, but scare the heck out of me. I changed my Facebook profile/background picture the other day, and was greeted the next morning with those pictures staring out at me from three different Windows 8 computers when I went to login. A Google search for recommended modifications for my crapcan Acura racecar that was bought at an impound auction turned into a barrage of car ads for the new Acura TLX on nearly every website I went to for the next ten days. Facebook has become nearly useless for anything beyond filling leftover time, as it pumps out the “optimal” news stories and ads to appeal to my demographic profile while the updates and news from my thoughtful friends gets crowded out by wingnuttery and hysterical evangelical propaganda.
My least favorite relationship is the one between my smartphone, my tablet and Google/app developers. I tried to fight with Android over user permissions but finally just gave up. Two different apps that let me establish at least partial control over what apps had access to hardware on the phone (location, cameras, microphones and such) just quit working and caused my tablet to randomly reboot until I finally deinstalled them. If a nutjob employee at Facebook, Twitter, Google or one of many other app developers that asked for access to camera/microphone/contact list/location information/etc during app installation wanted to listen to my conversations, watch me through my cameras, download my contact lists or track my comings and goings through the location features, they can do it and I don’t have any control over it! No one is interested in me, but I would be scared if I were a celebrity. I finally resorted to putting a piece of tape over the camera and shutting off location services manually on a regular basis, until some app asks for them again and the dance starts all over. The lack of granular user control over data sharing and access to hardware features, combined with the insidious way that apps request access and then refuse to work if you don’t grant everything they ask for is disturbing to me at the most basic level. It might be time for the same kind of warning labels for smartphones that you see on cigarettes:
Attorney General’s Warning: By using this Android device, you agree to let all installed apps, Google and your service provider access your cameras, microphones, location information, passwords, pictures, documents, text messages and anything else that they feel like any time they want without your knowledge.
In the interest of fairness, Apple and Microsoft are not much better – they might even be worse in some ways – I just have a lot more direct experience with Android.
The thing that worries me the most is the loss of independence and resiliency that these feudal systems are encouraging. Many small ISPs, enterprises, school systems and government entities have outsourced their IT needs to Google or Microsoft. Data that used to be on a hard drive in the back room, tended to by a local employee is now out there “in the cloud” somewhere. It is the WalMart-ization of data – one job at the corporate headquarters killed off a hundred sysadmin jobs and the gravity of the cloud continues to draw power, capacity and influence inward from the edges toward a monolithic center under the guise of efficiency and cost savings. All it cost was local self-determinism and independence.
All hail our feudal masters!