Things Tech Companies Do To Your Digital Stuff Without Telling You

Author

Adriana Lee

December 8, 2014

For all the fantastic (and fantastical) things tech companies do these days, they’re still spectacularly bad at one thing: transparency.

This week, a lawsuit against Apple revealed that, between 2007 and 2009, the company deleted music off of users’ iPods—specifically songs from non-iTunes sources—without telling them. If there’s one thing we learned from the U2 album debacle, it’s that people get cranky when you take liberties with their digital life (even when you’re giving them freebies).

See also: How—And Why—Apple’s Trying To Take Over Your Life

But Apple’s far from alone. 

Wireless Stalking

Gadget makers, online services and others routinely do covert things without anyone being the wiser—that is, until they’re caught red-handed. Verizon essentially stalked subscribers’ mobile browsing activities for advertising purposes.

Unbeknownst to subscribers, Verizon slipped in the bits of code to track where people went and what they did across the Web. AT&T confessed to doing something similar, but the company ended its program last month.

They didn’t completely cover up the behavior, but they didn’t make it clear to subscribers either. This has become technology’s favorite strategy: Hide unsavory tactics in plain sight. 

See also: Why Verizon Is Tracking All Your Mobile Web Traffic

Another form this takes is when companies bury potentially unpopular maneuvers in lengthy Terms of Service or Privacy Policy literature. Off-putting legalese makes for a perfect hiding place, because not once in the history of the world has anyone ever said, “I can’t wait to sink my teeth into this gripping TOS!” 

At least AT&T learned that if it wants something, it should ask for it. Even offer an incentive. For its upcoming super-fast gigabit Internet service in Austin, it will drop the price if subscribers let the company track their browsing habits.

Users As Lab Rats

Sometimes companies don’t even make meager attempts to inform users. Over the summer, news broke that Facebook and OKCupid had both run experiments on the people who use their services, manipulating their news feeds and coughing up fake dating matches without their knowledge.

Facebook tends to be a repeat offender. Back in 2012, in one of its most egregious violations of user rights, the hoodie-loving social network took it upon itself to replace people’s actual emails with its own @facebook versions. Unfortunately, that’s the same year iOS 6 crammed Facebook deeper into the iPhone. The result: The @facebook emails overwrote people’s real addresses in the Contacts app. Oops. 

See also: How To Opt Out Of Facebook’s Mind-Altering Experiments

Fails like these have dinged Facebook for years. Its latest stab at reversing its bad reputation as privacy-violator extraordinaire comes as “Privacy Basics,” a new attempt that supposedly give users more transparency in an easy-to-understand way.

There are too many examples across the Web to cite them all. But one thing seems clear: Facebook, OKCupid and other free services can irritate us with their sneaky ways, but we reserve our biggest outrage for the shenanigans committed by our paid providers.

An Apple A Day … Keeps Our Rights Away?

Apple says it barred sound files from external sources for security reasons. 

Maybe that’s true. (It’s the same argument the company makes to explain its hatred for jailbreaking.) Or maybe it was a cutthroat move to block competition to its iTunes store. Either way, the company monkeyed around with people’s data willfully and without proper disclosures. 

What’s more disconcerting than what Apple did is what it might yet do. Like others, including Google and Samsung, the iPhone maker wants access to our homes, cars, wallets and wrists. That’s a lot of our lives to lay open to any one company, and it requires a deep level of trust. 

The questions users need to ask is: Does Apple deserve our trust? Does any tech company? 

Lead photo of 2005 iPod by JD Hancock; Jobs with iPod photo courtesy of PopSugarTech; Facebook photo by Dimitris Kalogeropoylos

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