As 2018 comes to a close, people around the world have to face the stark truth of surveillance capitalism. Nearly all consumer products — speakers, phones, cars, and perhaps even mattresses — are recording devices, storing metrics on our movements and behavior. The New York Times just published a detailed report on location tracking in leaky Android and iOS apps. That’s just a fact of life when people use smartphones, right? Wrong. In 2019, Purism’s Librem 5 smartphone will be proof that no one has to live with spies in their pockets.
If anything has changed since Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, it’s that more and more people are jumping ship from the Frightful Five: Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft. At Purism, we offer an alternative to the polluted software ecosystems of these tech giants.
Our code is Free and Open-Source Software (FOSS), the industry standard in security because it can be verified by experts and amateurs alike. The software on our Librem laptops and our upcoming phone stands on a strong, foundational chain of trust that is matched by hardware features such as kill switches. These switches give people the added assurance that their devices won’t record or “phone home” to advertisers, spies, and cyber criminals. Turn off WiFi, microphone, and webcam on the Librem 5 and they’re off, no question about it.
Purism’s combination of trustworthy hardware and software is a win for privacy advocates, enterprise, and the so-called average user. We believe that everyone deserves privacy and that security, freedom, and autonomy are closely linked. To build a libre and privacy-respecting world, however, we need to fathom the scope of the problem and meet it head-on.
The Times exposé follows the movements of Lisa Magrin, a school teacher. On Ms. Magrin’s trips to school, location markers were recorded “more than 800 times” often in her classroom. But it doesn’t stop there: “An app on the device gathered her location information, which was then sold without her knowledge. It recorded her whereabouts as often as every two seconds… While Ms. Magrin’s identity was not disclosed in [phone] records, The Times was able to easily connect her to [a spot on the map].”
Think that’s invasive? Apps continued to track Ms. Magrin while she traveled to a Weight Watchers meeting, to a dermatologist, hiking with her dog, and to her ex-boyfriend’s home. Many people know that tracking is ubiquitous, but facing the stark results is a harrowing experience.
Privacy researchers have known the pitfalls of ever-listening sensors for a long time, so I wish I could say this is news to me. My research at Yale Privacy Lab has explored smartphone spying in detail, and I’ve personally dug into the privacy pitfalls of everything from Google’s bogus location settings to snooping billboards. This time last year, Yale Privacy Lab collaborated with the researchers at Exodus Privacy and utilized the excellent Exodus scanner to reveal just how polluted the mobile app ecosystem really is.
What do I mean when I say “polluted”? Apps that are submitted to either Google Play or the iOS App Store contain hidden trackers in the form of Software Development Kits (SDKs). These are clandestine snippets of code that ask for invasive permissions such as camera, network, and microphone control. Such tracker SDKs may collect and transmit location, personal information, and behavioral analytics. In some cases, these hidden snippets of code react to ultrasonic tones that are silent to humans, allowing retailers and marketers to track the proximity of users as they walk around malls and retail outlets. These hidden “anti-features” have been a standard part of both Google and Apple’s app store model, communicating with spying Internet-of-Things devices such as iBeacons.
I work at Purism because I know we can solve this problem. Big changes are on the horizon in society at large, and people are fed up with surveillance capitalism. Purism offers replacements for the privacy prisons of the Frightful Five. You don’t have to become a luddite to enjoy them, either — our products are as beautiful as they are secure.
Take a stand, #DemandFreedom, and join the world that we’re making.