Big Brother, For Real


by Samuel Greengard

I just spent 10 days in China. I carried an iPhone and iPad the entire time and the ability to stay connected was truly profound. During Thanksgiving, we were able to use FaceTime while in Yangshuo to video chat with family in California. I could view e-mail and read news on a real-time basis.

But, as much as I love these devices, I was frustrated by my inability to manage the way they work and to feel as though I control them. I'm not exactly a tech neophyte. But when I switched off notifications for the New York Times, AP and others on my iPhone they just kept streaming in anyway. I really don't understand how I can turn off a setting and the process continues to occur. It makes me wonder what else is happening that I don't know about.

Then we find out that many current smartphones contain monitoring software named Carrier IQ, which may have illegally wiretapped mobile communications. A 25-year-old computer consultant named Trevor Eckhart recorded a video of the program logging every keystroke, including supposedly encrypted HTTPS exchanges through Google. It's possible that people who work at Carrier IQ have read personal text messages as well. All of this prompted U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota) and privacy advocates to demand an explanation.

According to Wired, Verizon denies using the software, Sprint defended the use of the software, T-Mobile and AT&T say they use it merely as a "diagnostic tool," and it appears to be installed on BlackBerry and Nokia devices as well. Apple has largely discontinued the use of Carrier IQ. It was installed on pre-iOS 5 devices but will be completely removed in a future software update, the company reported.

All of this gets back to a problem I blogged about last week: the lack of full disclosure and an inability to opt into programs that may or may not use our data in ways we do not approve. Yes, it's a privacy issue but it's far more.

When you connect all the dots it's apparent that we're perilously close to losing control of the devices we use, including mobile phones. We don't know what's going on behind the curtain. As amazing and useful as these devices are, it's downright troubling to think that we're actually living in a corporate version of George Orwell's 1984.