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A Short History of Unsavory Tech Snooping

Six egregious instances of technological trust abuse
NSA spying eagle



Wikimedia Commons/EFF

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This month my Scientific American column tackled the issue of high-tech trust. Bit by bit the Apples, Googles, Microsofts and, of course, the NSAs of the world have shaken our trust. They've abused it, one highly publicized breach after another, and left us fearful and wary.

Here, for your sleep-losing pleasure, are some choice examples of the tech industry's impressive history of trust violations.

April 1998: Microsoft orchestrates a phony grassroots campaign. In an effort to sway public opinion during the government's antitrust investigation, Microsoft orchestrated a "grassroots" campaign of letters to the editor of newspapers in key states. These letters were apparently signed by "average citizens" but were actually written by staffers at Edelman, Microsoft's public relations firm.

October 2005: Sony is caught planting a "virus" on its music CDs. Technically, it was a rootkit: a piece of self-concealing software that installed itself onto your PC. It was designed to modify Windows so that you could not copy Sony music CDs; it also sent records of your listening habits back to Sony.

When a firestorm of public outrage erupted, Sony's response was to offer an "uninstaller" that, in fact, simply unhid the rootkit program and installed even more copy-protection software. Eventually, the company recalled the affected CDs and stopped its CD copy-protection efforts. But the discovery that a company was willing to spy on its own customers dealt a terrible blow to the public's trust in big-tech companies.

January 2010: Barnes & Noble understates the weight of its Nook tablet. I discovered this one myself. The company advertised its Nook e-book reader as weighing 7.4 percent less than it really did. Who'd notice, right? Who bothers to weigh a tablet to see if its specs are being accurately represented?

We already take it on faith that the manufacturers will knowingly inflate stats like battery life, useful camera ISO (light sensitivity) and wi-fi range. But, all of a sudden, a product's weight joined the long list of specs that consumers have learned not to trust.

April 2011: Apple devices are logging users' locations. A pair of researchers discovered that iPhones and cellular iPads had, for a year, been recording your whereabouts. These data points were getting stored in a file that was transferred to your computer's copy of iTunes—unencrypted.

Apple tried to clarify that the "tracking" was in fact just being used to bring us better cell coverage. It soon provided a software update that eliminated the practice. But the damage—a lot of damage—was done.

May 2012: Google's Street View downloads citizens' private data. The reason Street View cars patrol America's roads is to improve Google Maps and offer photographic views of every address. The reason it tunes into wi-fi hot spots as it drives is to improve its own location-based services.

But what was the reason for downloading 200 gigabytes' worth of e-mail, chat transcripts, passwords, photos, Web-surfing history (including visits to dating and porn sites), and other personal information from unprotected wi-fi networks? That was not okay.

Google wound up paying a series of fines, including $25,000 to the Federal Communications Commission, $190,000 to Germany and $7 million to 38 states. But the whole business made those passing Street View cars look just a bit more sinister than before.

June 2013: We learn that the National Security Agency has been eavesdropping on us. This one you probably heard about. Our own government has been intercepting our phone calls, e-mail, chat transcripts, browsing history, our Hotmail, Google, Yahoo and Facebook traffic—and on and on and on. Officials have attempted to reassure us by explaining that Americans weren't targeted and that the searches were limited to target words or phrases that might indicate terrorist activity. But the public, by and large, was not consoled.

Frankly, it's amazing that we have any trust in our high-tech (and government) institutions left.

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