People used to be pretty good at rejecting spyware. That godawful toolbar which downloaded itself onto your Pentium III PC back in 2001, disabled your search engine and turned your browser into a marketing portal?… Well, you had your security software in attack mode within five minutes, didn’t you?
But what have you got on your smartphone? Do you have any free apps? Have you considered that if you’re not seeing adverts within a free app (and in some cases even if you are), the program is almost certainly gathering your personal data and selling it to whoever wants to buy it? Have you considered that, this being a phone, the information those apps are mining could be a lot more personal and specific than would ever be the case with an old personal computer? It can feasibly mine a wealth of very specific geographical and contact information, as well as accessing camera and audio data. And have you considered that those wishing to buy this highly specific and personal data may not merely be sales departments, but organisations who could, in time, use the data against you?
The world is sleepwalking into its own personal episode of Big Brother. But this, almost infinitely huge group of Big Brother housemates, won’t be winning any prize money or banking a mint in media fees. This group of Big Brother housemates, indeed, won’t in most cases even realise they’re being watched. They’ll simply go through life thinking they have their privacy, whilst literally, and willingly, carrying a bug around in their pockets. As more time passes, mobile phones become less like communication devices, and more like ‘chav nav’ ankle tags.
So why is this happening, when the public used to be so quick to attack all that nasty spyware? Why do people accept spyware on their phones, when they typically wouldn’t on a PC?
Well, the short answer is that spyware grew up. One of the reasons PC users would attack the spyware of the past is that it was aggressive, blatant, didn’t appear to be benefitting them in any way, and essentially behaved like a burglar. It broke into to their personal space uninvited and revealed itself as the nasty little piece of scum it really was. Then it refused to leave and had to be forcibly removed, fighting all the way to the door.
The newer, smartphone spyware, however, has a completely different modus operandi. It realises that as long as people are getting what they want, apparently without cost, they don’t ask questions. So it gives people what they want. It goes out of its way to be useful, and fun, and helpful. It goes out of its way to be liked. Everyone’s happy, and frankly, they don’t want to know how their life enhancements are being paid for.
So spyware is no longer the burglar. It’s now the smooth-talking personal assistant who’ll bring you a plate of custard creams and take them into the kitchen – but go through all your cupboards and drawers on the way, then sell their findings to your insurance provider, for many times the cost of the biscuits.
So, how to get into the Big Brother house? Use the latest smartphone, and download a pile of free apps. Spyware has grown up, and made being spied upon cool. But it’s still spying, and you’re probably paying a much bigger price for those friendly little apps than you think.
And the photo at the top of the piece?… It’s a shot I took on 16th August 2010, in Stirchley, Birmingham, of the ad poster for the final series of Big Brother (UK) to be broadcast on its original TV station of Channel 4,