Big Brother Is Watching You


Social media is a force for good. It enables family and friends to stay in touch across the world, enables children to communicate with their friends by smartphone and Facebook, companies to promote their goods through viral seeding and news to spread like wildfire around the globe. It leads to more open societies, more scrutiny of wrong-doers, more accountability through shared knowledge.

So why are some people increasingly disturbed about the rise of social networking, and the technology that facilitates it?

Disturbing Findings 

The news this week that Carrier IQ has been contacted by a US Senator to explain the workings of their smartphone software, with its troubling security and privacy implications, is causing a storm. Carrier IQ insist that the information their software collects is simply to enable their operators to diagnose glitches in the operating systems. But security analyst Trevor Ekhart reports that he found the CIQ software was recording users’ locations, keystrokes and the sites they visited, without asking their permission or offering an opt out clause. In effect the company could record every single action performed on a smartphone without the owner knowing, since the software was installed as standard, and details of it don’t appear on menus. The software has been installed on Samsung handsets and on some HTC Android phones. Carrier IQ initially tried to silence Eckhart by resorting to court action, but digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation intervened. Now Senator Al Franken, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on privacy, technology and the law has weighed into the debate, and Carrier IQ have until 14th December to reply to his letter to them, asking for urgent clarification on the matter. The software is estimated by Carrier IQ to be installed on more than 140 million devices, but Apple have moved to remove the software from the iPhone 4S and other devices running its iOS5 system software.

Privacy and Security Implications 

The spat raises interesting questions about the privacy of our data and the information being gathered by mobile phone operators without our knowledge. If it is possible that our personal information, including the contents of emails, SMS and social networking interaction can be gathered and used without our knowledge and permission, then questions must be raised about the potential for exploitation of this information by hostile parties, or even government.

The recent riots in the UK, during which some MPs called for the suspension of Blackberry’s BBM and messaging system, and Twitter, highlights the threat that politicians feel that social networking capacity poses. They argued that rioters were using social networking to ‘orchestrate’ riots, to co-ordinate attacks on police and to evade detection. The UK government refused to comply with the requests to suspend the service, but later information was gathered from social networking sites and used as evidence during the prosecution of rioters.

Blackberry and Facebook representatives pointed out to a Home Affairs Select Committee that although social media had been used ‘maliciously’ in some instances, it had to be viewed in a balanced way. Facebook and Twitter were use for social good during the riots too, reassuring family that their loved ones were safe, warning to the police about areas to watch, and co-ordinating the clean-up in the following days. Data gathered from Blackberry communications enabled the police to prevent incidents as they were able to follow the thread of planned attacks.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

But, as Juvenal asks, who watches the watchmen? If the technology exists to collect this kind of data for commercial reasons, it would be unsurprising if the security services were not keenly interested in the data too. But who decides what sort of activity is deigned ‘hostile’ or ‘subversive’. And where does individual freedom lie? The prospect of governments being able to track citizens through software such as Carrier IQ, without our knowledge, is a hellish vision of the future. What better way for security agencies to monitor terrorist activities? And that’s a good thing, right? Security agencies can already gain access to electronic data retrospectively, in order to obtain convictions. MPs calling for a suspension of social networking sites during times of disorder are opening up issues of privacy, policing and state control that need addressing urgently. We don’t want riots and terrorism, but we don’t want software installed on our mobile phones, which collect private communications without our knowledge either. Big Brother could be just around the corner, and we need to support Senators like Al Franken who are keeping a close eye on this issue.

Those are my thoughts; do you agree or disagree?

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