Big Brother

Cellphone Spyware, Like All Your Technology, Keeps Tabs on You

Your cellphone’s spyware, like all your technology, is keeping tabs on you, so get used to it, Dan Lyons writes.

Every week, it seems, comes some new revelation about technology spying on us. This week it’s a software program hidden away inside cellphones that tracks every button you push and every keystroke you make, and this has become such a hot topic that it has become the No. 1 item on TechMeme, a site that tracks tech stories from around the Web.

There are stories about how to figure out whether your phone contains the spy program, and how to get rid of it. There are denials from phone makers and carriers, sheepish admissions from others.

There are stories about hackers who are poring through the code of every phone out there to determine which models contain the program.

These stories about techno-snooping always make for great scandal copy, because everyone loves to freak out about privacy. But the real takeaway of this latest kerfuffle should be this: like it or not, these invasions are never going to stop, so we might as well get used to it.

Sure, maybe this cellphone software program will get stomped out. But another one will come along. And another, and another.

The truth is, everything you do on the Internet can be tracked, and if it can be tracked, it will be tracked. One huge overarching rule of technology is that whatever can be done, will be. It’s just too tempting—and, in the case of digital snooping, there’s simply too much money at stake.

Websites track you. Cellphones track you. The next big thing in computing is something called “the Internet of things,” meaning a world where intelligent sensors are put into everything, from cars to street signs to all the gadgets in your house, and they’ll all be able to communicate with each other. When that happens, all those things are going to be spying on you, too.

There is only way out of this is, and that is to take yourself off the Internet completely. Some people might choose to do that, but most of us, I suspect, will not. 

For most of us, this world in which we’re constantly tracked will be the new reality. This is the world we’re creating: a digital panopticon, where everything you do can be tracked. Facebook’s big new feature is “frictionless sharing,” where you can sign up for the Spotify music app and it automatically tells everyone what song you’re listening to, or you can sign up for the Washington Post “social reader” and let everyone know what you’re reading.

These squabbles we keep having over things like cellphone “spy” software are akin to an organism going into high alert when a virus enters the system. But in this case, though we might succeed in pushing back in certain places, in the long run the virus is going to win. The organism itself is going to change.

Governments will make noise about protecting privacy, as happened this week when the FTC announced it had settled charges with Facebook over that company’s repeatedly deceiving users about what information it was collecting and sharing. The FTC acted as if it had won a victory, but in reality the settlement is toothless, and the real message is that nobody, not even the U.S. government, has the power to stand in the way of this change. Nobody is going to keep Facebook and Google and everyone else from making their billions.

But in the meantime, we’ll all keep having these periodic spasms of outrage. In this latest incident, the controversial program is made by a company called Carrier IQ and was discovered by a security researcher who published a scary video showing data being streamed off his HTC Evo phone.

Carrier IQ says the software is put there by carriers and is intended not to spy on you but to help carriers manage their networks more efficiently.

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Early reports said Carrier IQ software was stashed away only on Android and BlackBerry phones, but by last night someone had figured out that it’s also tucked into the code inside Apple’s iPhone, too.

Now there’s a media feeding frenzy of trying to find out who is using Carrier IQ software, how they are using it, and what should be done.

This comes after a bunch of other similar revelations, like “locationgate,” when someone found out that iPhones kept a log of where their owners had been, and Apple had to scramble to explain that it was not all part of some big sinister Dr. Evil plan.

This week we’ve also had news about Facebook having to settle charges with the FTC over the way it tracks users and sells that information to advertisers.

Google too has had hassles because its Street View vehicles were also collecting information about Wi-Fi routers and using that to create location-based services.

In the case of Carrier IQ, the company first threatened to sue the guy who complained about the program but then withdrew the “cease and desist” order it had sent him.

Now a law professor now tells Forbes that the software might violate federal wiretap laws.

Here’s a prediction. Sometime soon, probably in the next few days, some member or members of Congress will recognize that this is a great opportunity to get some publicity and look like a hero by vowing to protect us all from the big, bad Internet. We’ll get press releases, and a press conference, and maybe some fresh new round of hearings in which politicians will scold a bunch of Silicon Valley techies for being such big, awful, greedy snoops.

Maybe they’ll pass some kind of law, but it will be watered down and weakened by the tech industry’s lobbyists, and then the whole thing will blow over and we’ll keep moving forward, shedding our notions of privacy, growing ever more accustomed to being tracked and followed and studied and aggregated, and someday, maybe by the time our kids are adults, this will all seem perfectly normal, and people won’t even remember what it was like to live in a world where you could do things without having everyone know about it.