Op-Ed

In the Mobile Ecosystem, Privacy is an Endangered Right

John Villasenor

Back in 1984, the prospect that most adults might some day carry small devices that not only perform location tracking but also keep track of phone calls and social interactions would have seemed … Orwellian. Yet, slightly more than a quarter of a century later, many of us choose to carry smartphones or tablets that collect that information and often much more.

It is helpful to keep this in mind when considering the latest dust-up involving privacy and mobile devices, this time involving a company called Carrier IQ. To recap: In November, 2011, a security researcher named Trevor Eckhart posted an analysis and then a YouTube video appearing to show that Carrier IQ’s software, which is installed on tens of millions of smartphones in the United States, logs mobile phone keystrokes and text messages. This led to a rapidly cascading series of events that has included a dubious cease-and-desist letter from Carrier IQ to Mr. Eckhart, an apology from Carrier IQ after the Electronic Frontier Foundation interceded on Mr. Eckhart’s behalf, letters from several members of Congress, multiple class-action lawsuits against Carrier IQ and its corporate customers, including Samsung and HTC, and a reported U.S. government probe.

The most serious charges against Carrier IQ stem from the possibility that data was collected without user consent—in other words, that the people on whose phones Carrier IQ is installed weren’t given the choice to “opt in.” If Carrier IQ indeed has been acquiring and using data inappropriately, it should be held accountable.

But it is also important not to let the Carrier IQ scandal divert attention from a trend in mobile privacy that may be far more important in the long run: Opting in to the monitoring and tracking technologies used in today’s sophisticated mobile “apps” increasingly means opting out of privacy. In fact, you would probably be shocked to know how much information about your life has been collected and distributed with your consent, and is now in the hands of hundreds of companies providing social-networking services, games and advertising for mobile devices.


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