It alarms me setting up a new phone.
Once you have linked your online accounts, whether they be @gmail.com or @mac.com or @live.com, you get to the annoying setup wizard that we all loathe and rush through. The screens wherein we mash 'next' impatiently so we can get to the end and start using it.
Nobody pays any attention to these things, everybody wants the convenience of knowing their online stuff 'just works' and that they won't lose their emails. But what is the real cost here?
I am setting up an Android phone, but I have been through a very similar process with an iPad before (it wasn't mine, to be clear) and I can only assume a Windows phone is much the same experience. I will use Google as an example but the same features, requirements and attitudes are true of Apple, Microsoft and every other player in the market.
So I have turned it on and entered my email address. We'll come back to that. The next screen presents:
Backup & restore: "Backup your data to a Google account". And then, in slightly smaller, faded print, "includes apps, app settings, system settings and Wi-Fi passwords". I was curious what "app settings" really meant, which lead me to this reference of the data synced to the cloud for the Play Games service. Yes, just the places you've lived, your relationship status, gender, age, photo and any websites you might be involved with. Just that. Still, does it really matter? This information is coming straight from your Google account anyway, it's just now been made available in some way to their games platform and potentially any game running on it. Hrmm.
Your system settings of course are just the settings for your phone, which one would expect to be fairly innocuous, but then... wifi passwords? Haven't Google already been in trouble for doing dodgy things with wifi?
Location: "Let apps better determine your location. Anonymous location data will be collected and sent to Google." Well, maybe we can trust them here. Maybe we believe that all is being sent into the ether is a point in space and a time and they use this information to build a big map of where their phones are being used and where their reach extends to. Then they know where to sell more phones to and where their growth is heading. We can assume that this is what happens, based on our belief that it would be suicide for a company to betray us and be tracking us with this information without our consent. If even a single identifier were attached to this information, if, say, an IP address were logged with each one at any point in that transmission and those could be cross-referenced with network provider records... oh god. Well, we'll never know for sure will we. Not really, because all of this happens behind closed doors in a closed platform with closed policies.
"For improved accuracy and other purposes, scan for Wi-Fi networks, even with Wi-Fi is off". What are these "other purposes", Google? More wifi scanning. More triangulation. More knowing where you are at every moment, whether your GPS is on or not.
"...uses wi-fi and other signals to determine location more precisely and quickly [...] some data may be stored on your device. Data may be collected even when no apps are running." This is just more of the above, but in an even more aggressive fashion. Having your location update when you're not even using your phone for anything. Enabling it to keep an eye on where you are even when you don't need it to. Juuust so that next time you open a map, you can get some roughly accurate results from your signal triangulation which will have been updated within 5 seconds when GPS locates you down to the millimeter anyway.
Next comes "Join the World of Sony". I skip this step — I have enough supreme data overlords already.
Accounts: "Sign in to online accounts and stay updated". This phone comes with Facebook and Twitter built into it as core apps - you don't even have to download them. Yet more multi-billion dollar corporations I have given my digital life over to. I am sure most people have many more; Instagram and Snapchat and Vine. Tinder and Grindr. All the things they wouldn't want others knowing about them sitting up there in somebody else's closet.
I consider opening Twitter while two conflicting parts of me attempt to balance the hypocrisy of owning an account with the enjoyment of using the system against itself.* Well, best not use the built-in one. Being built-in, there isn't even a way to see what data it has access to. I open the app store and click install to see the standard app's requirements. It asks for location, contacts, SMS (why?) and media files; and is therefore just harvesting more of who I am and where I go. I decide to leave it. I leave Facebook (which requires literally every permission) well alone and make a mental note to come back to both of them once my phone is adequately protected against their invasive functionality.
I figured this statement could use some clarity, and so I want to be clear that I don't mean this in any malevolant sense. What I find hard to justify about Twitter is that it's another centralised social service with inordinate amounts of power and influence, which is not a paradigm I am particularly fond. However, in a different light it is a platform for sharing unfiltered information at an individual level and that is an incredibly powerful democratic tool. The world will move off it eventually and find a decentralised equivalent, but in the meantime mass communication only works when everyone is in the same loop.
I opt out of the "anonymous usage data to help improve our services" section because it is never clear what that entails and I only tick that box to help out organisations, small companies and individuals whom I feel actually deserve some help. Sony are doing just fine.
So at this point I have a usable handheld computer (are we really still calling these "phones"?), but what have I lost? What is mine anymore? What can I really be sure is safe? These companies hand out your information at government request all the time. If I am a standard user, if I am in the vast majority of the population who just don't care about this stuff, Google or Apple or Microsoft now have all my emails, photos, intimate letters, business correspondence and whatever documents I have ever emailed to anybody - rental history, identification, bills, bank statements; certainly more than enough to steal an identity. They have a list of all the programs I have ever installed on my phone, from which they can extrapolate my interests. They have the settings for those apps, which in the vast majority of cases are going to be full of identifying information and logs of your behaviour. Think about your map search history & GPS directions, chat apps, file syncing. All of this information attached to a permanent online description of "me", slipped casually under the nose of most as they are handed each new gadget without any indication as to the weight of the things they are about to agree to.
And even if you have opted out of all these features, even if you have read the fine print and unticked all the boxes you will still be turning the location settings back on soon afterward. You need to use Google's location services to provide your location to any app, not just theirs. You need to allow them access to that data to get what has become baseline functionality out of your phone.
And you will continue to be asked these questions, day in, day out, as your camera asks if it can geo-tag your photos, as your search bar asks if it can give you suggestions based on your location, as your glasses and phone record the environment around you so that ASIO and the NSA can watch everybody in realtime, as your car and appliances and house become connected to the internet so that multi-billion dollar corporations can invade your every waking moment to sell you more things.
Big Data is the new tech term right now, the thing that everybody is doing. A large part of "Big Data" is just blindly hoovering up every bit of information you can so you can work out what to do with it later. Big data means every government and every company, everywhere, wants to track, store and know everything about you. And whether you believe these entities are good or bad, you can't believe the criminals who break into them and leak your personal information are doing good things for you.
So for shit's sake, opt out of these things. Be aware of where your information is going. Read the fine print enough to understand what you're agreeing to. At least care enough to be turn off the things you don't really need. Up until a few months ago, I walked around with Google Now turned on and had them happily (and unnecessarily) informing me of how congested the traffic was and long it would take to get home as I left the office (none of this information had been provided by me, incidentally). It is strange and unforgivable that we aren't questioning this kind of behaviour more.
We all need to wake up here.