When Apps Go Bad

When Apps Go Bad

You understand what your smartphone and the apps you use are for.  However, your technology tools are getting simpler to use and at the same time more complicated.  This means as time goes by, you understand less and less about how these tools work.  When you are not looking these popular tools will start coloring outside the lines with greater frequency; or doing what you don’t expect.  These unknown-unknowns will be a growing public concern, especially for security and privacy.

The Gift of Paranoia, vs Education and Responsibility

Recently I was at an evening party with an eclectic group of people from various countries.  In the darkness, I pulled out my phone to check a notification and the girl sitting across from me went silent.  Her face was lit by the fire, and she was jet-lagged.  As she started speaking, she was like a camper telling a ghost story.

She said, “You know that they are tracking your every movement, and at this point they know more about you and your habits… than you do yourself.”  I have had friends delete their profiles on social networks for this reason, so I wasn’t a stranger to this type of thinking.  The point she was making is that my technology tools have interests if their own, and the interests of the makers of my tools may not always be in my best interest. She is basically correct, but the gift of paranoia she was trying to give me I didn’t want. I decided to throw some fuel on the fire, metaphorically.

I said, “I believe you are right, especially as Google states they are creating the most advanced artificial intelligence ever.  Also, it is learning by every users search, every click, like a billion times a minute.  Perhaps it only knows what it knows, and we are little obsolete maintenance men already.”  Okay, I can exaggerate at parties a little, but there is enough truth in that statement to alarm even me.

This disconnect between you and a your general understanding of how your tools work is growing.  Sometimes the reality of this disconnect is like being hit with a bucket of ice water.  Your tools will continue to make you happy… until someone can make money off you in a new clever way; and then your happiness and what you think about your privacy is secondary.  It is not always intentional or evil.  This is what happens when technology evolves, the social and moral rules are defined as we go along, and corrected by the free market.  The difference now is that we rely so much on technology, as these rules get sorted out some strange and scary things happen from time to time.

Creepy is Not Kind

Recently a concerned user discovered that after he uninstalled the Google Photos app, it continued to upload his images to their servers in the background. He clearly did not intend or imagine this would happen.

There they were, hundreds of photos I’d taken of my wife, my daughter, and me, grouped together by Google’s facial-recognition technology in the company’s Photos app, all snapped over the course of a little more than a month. The problem was, I’d deleted all of those pictures, and most distressing, I didn’t even have the Google Photos app on my phone.

David A. Arnott, Google Photos may be uploading your pics, even if you don’t want it to (Video), Upstart Business Journal

Businesses and app developers will program their tools to communicate in new ways to simplify their features and ability to make money.  This is progress.  They will also give their creations more unintended freedom, by programming them to act and communicate outside their boxes.  This phenomena is called “deep linking”.  It is only a matter of time before people see this as a Pandora’s box opening, and the creep-factor starts to alienate users.

Mobile app developers are humans driven by business goals. If the business opportunity is large, but proscribed by narrow rules, they will follow those rules to gain the initial opportunity. However, once those rules prove burdensome, businesses will look for ways around them.



So… what is the single most important habit to protect yourself right now?

Understanding and taking control of your user settings and preferences.  Every app or device you use will have an area where it stores information about you.  In that area, you will be able to do things like change your preferences and password.  This feature exists because users need to update their information to get all the benefits of a tool, and the tool creators want you to change this information so you will use the tool.  However, you can learn much from these settings about how your information is being used, and find your comfort level for security.  Look for it, and go through every feature, every toggle and checkbox, every option.  Know what each of the options are, and research what they mean for you and your privacy.  Being educated is better than being paranoid, even if you are not able to stop every unintended consequence.

Do this immediately after you install a new app, like I do.  Also, do this often.  Set a reminder on your calendar to do this every month until your curiosity in what your tools are doing becomes a habit.  As the deep-linking trend grows and apps start fighting their way outside their little boxes, at least you have a strategy to be more informed… and recognize the strange and unintended behavior earlier.

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