Carrier IQ, Usage metrics, and Privacy Concerns - Oh my!

The well-read and the non-delusional among us are not surprised by the software Carrier IQ provides. For those of you who are surprised that a carrier would not only sanction, but promote and outsource such a thing, consider the following scenarios (that I find similar):

Internet advertisements

Internet ads are predominately driven by tracking your previous purchases or browsing history.

How does Amazon know that you might be interested in that [insert mildly offensive or embarassing subject matter] book? Because you were just flipping through the pages of its prequel yesterday on Amazon while logged in to the same account. How does Amazon know what other products might interest you when you are viewing a particular product? Because that’s what everyone else proceeds to view when in similar contexts. How do they know these facts? Because they track them.

Wow, my Google advertisments are so wildly pertinent to whatever I just searched on Google. [A-maz-ing.]

Customer loyalty cards

The most apparent scenario here comes from your grocery store.

Those coupons that print during your checkout process, and always seem right on the mark, or maybe seem to push you to an alternative brand of a product that you regularly purchase? What are the odds that your grocery store would know those coupons are right for you? The odds are pretty good given that they know everything you have purchased in the recent history (and likely since you had that loyalty card).

Video content providers

YouTube is just an extension of Google. Netflix is obvious and follows suit with Google and Amazon, although they did publicly reach out for assistance in making their results algorithms better (see netflix prize), so everyone should have long been aware that they stored your rental history and used it to recommend other titles.

More congruent to the Carrier IQ revolution are your cable providers and television stations. Particularly now that streaming content is becoming available through your cable providers, you can watch as they begin to tackle the same solutions that Netflix and other web-based organizations have long been grappling. How do they keep you watching, and how can they recommend pertinent content for you.


Many opensource products let you opt-in/opt-out of sending anonymous data back to the original developers. This data can help address bugs, identify functional concerns, and expedite the development process for new and existing features. While we all may opt-in/opt-out consistently, I don’t think many are surprised by the request.

When commercial products do similar things, all of a sudden the stakes are higher? I paid for this, so I will not be helping you make it better (really?) – or so it seems. Windows Error Reporting, and the Windows Malicious Software Removal Tool both made splashes when users first realized that they sent data back to MicroSoft.

And how do you think anti-virus applications work? I’ll go ahead and give you a tip - they are just pulling file names out of thin air, or randomly guessing at what executables might be malicious.

Metrics make your content better

Ask any application or web developer. Metrics are important, and they are becoming more and more readily available. With metrics you can quickly and easily identify things like - users don’t click on link x, but they click on link y all the time. Remove link x, and make link y more prominent; you get happy users and a productively growing application. Another example, all my users in a particular area of my site seem to be coming from country x, perhaps I should cater that section of my site to their time zone. All of these concepts would be possible with feedback from users, but let’s face it: no one provides feedback.

You don’t like sitting on the phone while someone asks you questions about your experience. You also don’t intend to complete and return that mailer survey that came a few weeks ago. You’re certainly not going to infringe on your lolcat-infused internet time in order to complete some surveymonkey checklist for some service that you downloaded for free.

Get over it or go RMS

You aren’t helpful, so companies help themselves. Sometimes it’s in the fine print, sometimes it not. You are free to make the claim that companies:

  • Should not track your usage metrics, or
  • Should tell you that they track your usage metrics, or
  • Should give you the option to track or not track your usage metrics, or
  • Should not be allowed to track your usage metrics, etc.

But, the fact is, they always have - and now it is easier than ever. Why wouldn’t they? In the context of wireless providers (particularly for the users in the US) phones have long been tied to a particular carrier, and correspondingly, the cost is heavily subsidized by that carrier. Since you can hardly say you paid for that device, and you are clearly just renting space/usage on their wireless network, what leverage do you even have in this concern? The carrier wants to know when a tower needs upgrades, where they need new towers, etc. Just like device manufacturers want to know how to serve you content as quickly and efficiently as possible (remember how apple tracks location of towers?). While I may not like it, I have to side with the carriers/device manufacturers here.

Don’t like it? Sell all your network-enabled electronics, and get off the grid. Quit bitching.

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