The Pesky Privacy Peccadilloes of Palm Pre

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The Palm Pre shares with Palm some data from your smartphone: GPS location, applications, application crash data and so on.

Get out your tin foil hats.

The details of the data sharing were uncovered by a mobile programmer, Joey Hess, who posted about it on his blog. It's a straightforward account of poking around in the Pre's webOS and discovering what it was periodically sending up to Palm.

Predictably it was at once transmogrified into another Big Brother meme, such as the post by Zach Epstein, at The Boy Genius Report, who used "Big Brother" not only in the post's headline but in an accompanying graphic. "Now, this discovery raises all kinds of issues surrounding ethics, disclosure, privacy and a host of other touchy subjects," Epstein breathlessly assured us. He then completely ignored this host of touchy subjects, expect for a passing reference that the info gathering was an "invasion of privacy."

PC World's Jared Newman is different in how he approaches the meme but not in the end much different. So he phrases the opening with a question: "Is your Palm Pre spying on you and sending your GPS coordinates and more back to the Palm mothership on a daily basis?" The second paragraph introduces a correlate for "spying" -- "snooping."

Oddly, Newman says that what Hess "asserts" can't be confirmed. Yet Hess doesn't assert anything: he posts the code used in the webOS data uploads to Palm. Newman quotes from Palm's own terms and conditions giving the company the "the right to 'collect, store, access, disclose, transmit, process, and otherwise use your Registration Data, account or Device information,' and may also do the same with your location data to provide location services."

In a statement, which reads like it was written by a committee, Palm responds as follows:

“Palm takes privacy very seriously, and offers users ways to turn data collecting services on and off. Our privacy policy is like many policies in the industry and includes very detailed language about potential scenarios in which we might use a customer’s information, all toward a goal of offering a great user experience. For instance, when location based services are used, we collect their information to give them relevant local results in Google Maps. We appreciate the trust that users give us with their information, and have no intention to violate that trust.”

Unfortunately, what this is easily translated into is: "Your privacy is very very very important and we're not going to do anything bad to it, trust us. And we're not going to change anything, either."

Bet on it: by this time next week, Palm will have issued more statements and promised changes, probably some kind of opt-in or opt-out feature.

I asked the Palm PR rep about what information was actually being collected and why and, more importantly, what were the specific "ways" that Palm presently lets users turn this stuff on and off. He says he's looking into it. Based on Palm's approach to these matters in the past, I'm not holding my breath.

Not that I would. My general view is if you don't want anyone to know anything about you, including where you are, dig a hole, crawl into it, and pull the dirt in after you. And forget about push email and the mobile Web.

Let's say that Joey Hess is right: every day, Palm gets exactly the details he's identified. Then what? Do you envision Palm's Jonathan Rubenstein getting daily briefings on where you've been, and what app you downloaded? To what nefarious purpose could Palm put the fact that a webOS service on your Pre smartphone crashed twice in the last 24 hours?

The idea that I am an island unto myself, unless I alone decide otherwise, is literally anti-human. No one, even or perhaps especially everyone yammering about Big Brother, spying and snooping, lives like that.

Privacy isn't about fostering a misguided idea of hyper-individualism and imperial isolation. It's about boundaries, which are only needed, and only make sense in a communitarian context. Palm is clearly not alone here. I would be astonished if any other smartphone vendor and carrier were not doing something similar. And if they were not, and they were my vendor, I'd want to know why the heck they weren't.

Companies from which we buy products and services routinely keep information about us. They do so for very clear reasons: they want to keep us as a customer and keep us buying their services. They more they know about us, the more they can offer what we're likely to find valuable.

But it's a two-way street: I WANT Palm to know what I've got on my phone, and whether it's crashing and what's crashing, and whether an app I've got in my phone could make use of a new one that's just appeared on in the app catalog, and if I'm in northern South Dakota or the western part of East Boston, that information known and used by Palm, Sprint, or the applications I've bought from them could be entertaining, helpful, or valuable in all kinds of ways to me.

And of course, it's not just vendors: families, friends, coworkers, neighbors, acquaintances, come to know us, and we them. They're not spying, and they're not snooping. If they were, we know the difference, and we know when that privacy has been violated.

The Palm Pre and webOS are simply following the lead of the people using them: embedding themselves in a web of Web relationships, which depend on being known, as the explosive growth in social networks reveals.

Can Palm violate the trust that its customers implicitly put into its corporate hands. It sure can. And the punishment will be swift and measurable in shriveling revenues and dwindling market share and eventual extinction.

So, my suggestion is that Palm's Rubenstein invite Joey Hess over for a beer.

And blog about it.

This story, "The Pesky Privacy Peccadilloes of Palm Pre" was originally published by Network World.

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