Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Cost Of Your Privacy - Not Even 30 Silver Coins

Most people don't like to think about it - privacy that is.  They hope (or pretend) that it still exists in this electronic age.  But every day companies and governments learn more about us - often with us willingly supplying the information.

How did it happen that we so freely give up our most private details?  Although we've always given up bits and pieces of it whenever we applied for credit or purchased something online, large scale harvesting of private data didn't begin until Google offered Gmail to the public.  I bet most people, when they signed up for a gmail account, didn't realize that they made a pact with the devil: in exchange for free use of its service, they gave Google permission to rifle through all received or sent emails - ostensibly only to present "targeted" advertising in the margins of a personalized gmail web page.  Subsequently, Google went a step further and developed "Chrome" - a free browser whose use is predicated on its users agreeing to let Google snoop on the user's browsing habits.  Again, most people just hear from their friends how fast Chrome is...they don't know that they're agreeing to have Google harvest certain browsing-related information.  But who cares, right?  After all, Google promises to "do no evil".

Google's successes and the continued commoditization of computer hardware have led other software & hardware companies to join the bandwagon.  Foremost among them being Apple.  The company that, in 1984, made a big marketing splash by warning us of an Orwellian future where "Big Brother" is watching everything we do - has now morphed into what it warned us against.  Its iTunes store has always held our music related preferences and credit card information, but with the advent of the iPhone and iPad, Apple's wealth of information about us has increased exponentially: it now knows what types of applications we like, what books and magazines we read, how much time we spend on the web - heck, it even knows where we are at every moment in time (see the recent revelation that the iPhone and Google's Android kept the phone's latitude/longitude information in a local cache that was occasionally forwarded to their company's respective servers).  And now Apple wants you to keep your emails, calendars, contacts, and all other manner of data on its "iCloud" servers.  I'm guessing that you won't get an option to encrypt that data either.  After all, that would make it difficult for Apple to provide you with the benefits of "targeted advertisement".

The vast majority of the population (including some technically savvy people I count as friends) doesn't know of this data harvesting - those that know either don't care about this loss of privacy or gain from it.

Should we be worried?  I think so.  When I signed up for my gmail account, I was fully aware of the implications.  I optimistically bought into Google's "Do No Evil" mantra.  I think maybe I was naive.  Google is a corporation - its only obligation is to make money for its shareholders.  "Do No Evil" is no assurance that some day the needs/desires of the investors won't be put before the need for privacy of its customers.  More disturbingly yet, Apple is now hoping that we keep our entire digital life on their servers.  The company will make it easy and cheap.  It'll extol the convenience of the service; it'll offer much of the service for free - all in an effort to become *the* hub for our online information...the harvesting of this data can't be far behind.

Big Brother Is Watching

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Will Smartphones Destroy the Web?

I started writing this blog early last year and never finished it.  Today I saw the draft and thought it was even more appropriate today than last year...

Today's smartphones are amazing devices: aside from making phone calls and texting, they let us play games and surf the web at ever increasing speeds. So, what's not to love?

The danger appears in a feature that is becoming ubiquitous in smartphones: apps and app stores. Huh? How could those tremendously useful little applications found on the iPhone, Droid, etc. threaten the web? Quite simply: by existing.

Before the arrival of the iPhone, the Web blossomed into an indispensable information tool to which everyone with a Web browser had access. During this incredibly fruitful time, Web standards ruled and they became more and more sophisticated as the needs of the users of the Web and the applications they desired grew more demanding. Since standards underpinned everything, browsers continued to be able to support users. The Web ecosystem was flourishing.

But now more and more developers are foregoing developing their applications for the web.  Lured by the highly sophisticated but platform-specific APIs offered by cellphone manufacturers, they are spending their time and resources developing "apps".  Since apps do not work across platforms, mobile phone vendors achieve greater and greater "lock-in" as their app stores (and user dependence on them) grow.  Balkanization.  Suddenly only Apple users can access some information - information that used to be accessible to anyone with a Web browser.

Ergo: apps destroy the promise of the Web: access to information by all.