CHENNAI: The government has backed off and disowned its ignominious attempt to give itself access to your personal messages. A great victory for your privacy, you might think. But a closer look at the mobile phone in your pocket and the plethora of tiny little applications it hosts, will show you the lie. Your privacy isn’t yours, and hasn’t been. For a very long time.
From the rights to sift through and modify contacts, track your every movement, buying habits, media galleries, files and even your calender entries, mobile apps already hold them all. And in an irony of ironies, they hold the permission because you gave it to them. “The whole issue of privacy and private data that exploded in the last couple of days was a little amusing to me,” confessed Akilan Sudarshan, a mid-level product developer working with one of the largest technology companies in the world.
“That right to privacy that most people think they hold was surrendered quite willingly sometime ago.This fight that is shaping up now is more between the corporates that hold all that data and the government which wants access to it,” smiled Sudarshan.
But how? It isn’t just the rampant data mining that large digital powerhouses like Google, Facebook, etc., do with the terabytes of data they have access to. But also through the most innocuous and indispensable of everyday accessories _ the smartphone. “You don’t need to look at the big players as the scary ones. Yes, they are scary but they are visible. But those millions of mobile applications out there? They are with you all the time. And they have some very disturbing access to private data on your phone,” said another techie.
Take one of the most popular mobile applications in memory. Angry Birds, apart from making you waste time at prodigious rates, also has access to your location. “An App like Google Maps or a weather app needing location access is understandable. For what does a game need location access for?” asked Sudarshan. Angry Birds is not alone. One of the most popular Flashlight applications on Android also asks for location access. So do many other game applications.
In the true fashion of Internet democracy, there is an app to detect and out other applications that hold permissions that they have no business holding. ‘Clueful’ scans mobiles and assigns privacy scores based on what applications are doing, and leaking, in the background. More than 40 out of the 77 applications on this reporter’s phone didn’t make the cut. The worst of the lot were a currency rate tracker called XECurrency and file transfer wizard called Superbeam. Both of which were leaking the Unique Device ID of phone.
“This is true of most apps on almost everyone’s phones. They track, record and transmit so much information that creating user profiles is no hard task,” said Anikesh Kulkarni, an app developer.
All this information is generally sold or made available to advertisers and for targeted advertising. One of the reasons why you get a series of nonsense advertisements on your mobile phone or highly intuitive advertisements while browsing. Big players like Google, Facebook or Twitter have access to so much of your information that it is very hard to figure out what they are doing with it, say experts. Google for example admits to sharing non-personally identifiable data with partners. It also says it stores some of your information, indefinitely.
“With so much tracking and information on their everyday lives out there already, I don’t see how people still fight for their privacy,” asked Kulkarni. Apparently, we’ve already given it over to world spanning big brothers. And the little spies in our pockets.