February 28, 2012
A report published by the London Sunday Times has revealed that Facebook has been accessing and reading the personal text messages of users of their social networking app.
Facebook has reportedly even admitted reading the text messages, claiming that they were accessing data without the knowledge of users as part of a trial in an effort to launch their own messaging service.
This is just another piece of evidence which supports statements made by individuals like Julian Assange of WikiLeaks who said in an interview with RT, “Facebook in particular is the most appalling spying machine that has ever been invented.”
It appears that Facebook is not alone, although my readers who have been keeping up on my coverage of Big Brother technology likely assume as much.
Some of the other culprits mentioned in Fox’s summary are Flickr, which is now under the Yahoo! umbrella, as well as Yahoo! Messenger itself.
The Sunday Times also reported that dating site Badoo has accessed the private data of smartphone users while also reporting that some apps allow companies to delve much deeper into the private lives of users.
Of course this is just yet another way the massive and accelerating data collection arms race amongst Silicon Valley giants manifests itself in our lives.
The newspaper’s investigation found that some apps are even capable of hijacking users’ devices in ways which are much more troubling than just the reading of text messages.
This includes YouTube which is apparently able to remotely access and operate smartphone cameras, even the controls of such cameras allowing for photographs or videos to be taken at any time.
It is unclear if the YouTube app automatically loaded on to all Apple iPhones has this capability as well. This would be even more troubling, because it is actually impossible to remove; and newer versions of the iPhone are outfitted with dual cameras, making for a top-notch covert surveillance device.
The publicly available information on this investigation does not stipulate if it was restricted to one operating system, although one can assume that it focused on the Android operating system.
This is because one app was singled out called the Tennis Juggling Game (only available in the Android Market) which is produced by a smaller company, yet is still capable of intercepting the phone calls of users.
Another app singled out for its ability to intercept phone calls was My Remote Lock, a security app made by another small company called eAgency Mobile Security which is also only available on the Android Market.
For some, it might be easy to dismiss the dangers of large corporations harvesting highly sensitive private user data since they are “reputable” and according to some, trustworthy.
Yet, when it comes to unknown companies collecting the information and doing whatever they please with it, I doubt as many people would be as quick to accept it.
Emma Draper from the Privacy International campaign organization was quoted as saying, “Your personal information is a precious commodity, and companies will go to great lengths to get their hands on as much of it as possible.”
Indeed, this couldn’t be more accurate, and is precisely why I discount the statements made by Google and other industry giants recently which claim that they will introduce a “do-not-track” privacy button allowing users to block their personal information from being harvested when using the Google Chrome browser.
This would put the entire business model upon which Google is built in danger, and a company that big would never choose to put their revenue source at risk of being completely eradicated.
While the over 500,000 apps in Apple’s App Store are covered by the same terms and conditions, the Android Market works a bit differently.
As you can see on the pages linked above, there is a tab labeled “permissions” which lists what the given application has access to on your phone.
To be fair, Google is pretty transparent about the capabilities of applications in this regard, with the My Remote Lock app’s permissions page saying, “Malicious applications may read your confidential messages” and “Malicious applications may monitor, redirect, or prevent outgoing calls” amongst other warnings which most users likely ignore completely or never read to begin with.
This was confirmed by a YouGov poll for the newspaper which found that a whopping 70 percent of smartphone users rarely or never read the terms and conditions policy of an app when downloading it to their device.
This has become a chronic problem in the digital world, with massive and sometimes difficult to find and understand fine print accompanying many services and devices.
Due to the sheer size of these texts and the “legalese” often utilized therein, it makes complete sense that most consumers would never bother with them.
However, that lapse allows for things like this to happen and the apathy of users seems to reinforce the drive for companies to collect as much personal information as humanly possible, even if it is done in deceptive or secretive ways.
This is also allowed – if not encouraged – by governments because it serves as an invaluable intelligence collection asset. People actually choose to carry around a surveillance device with them at all times and most corporations are happy to fill any user information requests from government agencies without protest.
Unfortunately the support is not nearly as widespread as it should be, and unless consumers start actually paying attention and taking control of their personal information, there is nothing stopping companies for continuing or even expanding these practices.