Big Brother Is Watching Your Blackberry: How Wired Gadgets Encroach on Privacy

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With every high-tech gadget we buy, we give up a little more privacy. Many devices today are in constant communication with their manufacturer. And it's not just consumers who are losing their rights -- the technology gives authoritarian states whole new ways of keeping tabs on individuals.

Don't look now, but no matter where you go, you're connected. We -- or most of us, at least -- have opened our front doors to large corporations, hardware manufacturers, software firms and search engines. We have allowed them to rifle through our jacket pockets and handbags. And now they can do as they wish with us, or do the bidding of the powers-that-be -- in the form of a totalitarian government, for example.

Gadgets like the Blackberry are changing our lives.
REUTERS

Gadgets like the Blackberry are changing our lives.

Don't believe it? Well, consider a recent incident involving the Internet bookseller Amazon and two works by -- ironically enough -- George Orwell. Amazon had been selling the titles, "1984" and "Animal Farm," to owners of its Kindle reader, the special e-book device the bookseller developed. However, it turned out that the publishers of the Orwell books didn't own the electronic rights to the works. And so, to the surprise of buyers, Amazon erased the two books -- which had been paid for and delivered -- from the electronic reader. Amazon's readers had unwittingly purchased pirate copies, it turned out.

Now if this had happened in a normal book store, the customer would never even have known. A bookseller who had mistakenly sold pirated copies of a book would never have snuck into customers' living rooms, pulled the offending books from their shelves and left cash to the value of the purchase price on the kitchen table as recompense. In real life there are practical and legal obstacles to this sort of behaviour. But in the electronic world, it was simple. Probably Amazon won't even have to worry about legal problems relating to the action.

Losing the Sanctity of the Private Sphere

This is just one of many examples pointing to a dramatic change in our lives we will experience in the coming years. In the age of networked digital devices, it seems that values such as the sanctity of the private sphere, the protection of our private property and the inviolability of our correspondence no longer count for very much.

Whether it's gaming consoles, Blackberrys, iPhones, Windows PCs, Apple computers, Blu Ray players or the next big trend in personal computing, the netbook, digital devices that are permanently or frequently in contact with their manufacturer are here to stay. All of these devices can be remotely modified at any time through software updates. So you could say that an iPhone doesn't really belong to you -- at least not in quite the same way that your refrigerator or bicycle does. The manufacturers have us all on a leash.

In his 2008 book "The Future of the Internet -- And How to Stop It," American writer Jonathan Zittrain writes about the danger of what he calls "tethered appliances." They are becoming ever more common, he argues, because software updates are supposed to protect us from attacks by hackers or viruses -- just think of the monthly ritual of the Windows update. Using this logic, Apple can dictate the terms and conditions under which software can be developed for the iPhone. The iPhone is not a PC -- not everyone can write software for the phone and not everything can be installed on it. Hence Apple -- like Amazon -- reserves the right to remotely meddle with your iPhone at any time and without the consent of the user, in order to delete objectionable applications. All with the best of intentions, of course.

Is the State's Power Growing?

But the user's need for protection, coupled with the manufacturer's desire for control, can lead to a dangerous situation, Zittrain writes: "A shift to tethered applicances also entails a sea change in the regulability of the Internet" (author's emphasis). The "dangers of excess" will no longer come from viruses or hackers anymore, "but from the much more predictable interventions by regulators into the devices themselves, and in turn into the ways that people can use the appliances."

In other words, it is not just the power of the manufacturers over the users of their devices that is growing as a result of tethered appliances -- indirectly the power of the state is also growing. They are able to put enough pressure on any manufacturer to force it to help out with monitoring or control of private individuals. Anyone who believes that large companies would not bend to the will of autocrats and dictators just needs to take a look at the situation in China, where search engines and Internet providers do exactly what the Chinese government tells them to do.

A dramatic example of Zittrain's thesis occurred recently in the United Arab Emirates. Wired magazine and The Register reported how the local Internet provider, Etisalat, sent out a software update to around 145,000 of their Blackberry customers. However, thanks to a software glitch that caused the battery power in all the affected Blackberrys to be drained, it was discovered that the software update also included surveillance software.

The spying part of the software was switched off -- but all it needed was a command from the Internet server and the Blackberrys would send e-mail and text messages in an encrypted form to an unknown recipient. IT experts believe the intended recipient was local security forces. To date, Etisalat has not made a statement in response to the allegations. The company's sole response has been a curt press release stating that the reason for the update was simply "to improve the service quality."

Blackberry-maker Research in Motion has since warned customers not to install the unauthorized upgrade and has also made software available to that removes it.

Government Meddling

In his book, Zittrain also outlines similar cases, which admittedly don't look quite as serious at first glance. In the US, an auto manufacturer helped out the FBI with a car navigation system that could be reconfigured to eavesdrop on the vehicle's occupants via the navigation system's microphone. The automaker's engineers could switch on the microphone in the car remotely. There is at least one documented case of that happening, with the approval of a judge.

Also in the US, in 2006, another judge decreed that EchoStar, a manufacturer of satellite dishes and receivers, should reduce the functionality of devices it had already sold. This was because EchoStar's competitor, TiVo, which makes digital video recorders, was accusing EchoStar of violating its patents. EchoStar was told they would have to deactivate the built-in video recorder function. They were to do this retroactively using a software update. The consequences for the users would be that the function -- which owners had already paid for -- would disappear, as would all the programs they had already recorded. Happily for the owners, the order has been delayed while the legal wrangling continues.

Such instances, writes Zittrain, illustrate the "strange and troubling issues that arise from the curious technological hybrids that increasingly populate the digital world." And that applies not only to hardware with software connections, but also for Web-based software, from Facebook to Google Mail. "As with tethered appliances, when Web 2.0 services change their offerings, the user may have no ability to keep using an older version, as one might do with software that stops being actively made available." And naturally it would also be easy for the authorities to gain access to user data via the operators of such Web sites, provided they find the right legal means.

We will need to get used to the fact that these "curious technological hybrids" will never fully belong to us -- even if we have paid a lot of money for them. Every Webmail account, every high-tech telephone and every DVD player with an Internet connection has the potential to inhibit our freedom and privacy a little bit more.

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