Personal privacy is dead. Yes, the NSA, FBI, DOJ, and every other government acronym is reading your messages and tracking your movements. The concept sounds like a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream, but truth is in the recent revelations. Google, with its massive data centers, algorithms, and supercomputers, knows more about you than probably any company on the planet – except maybe Facebook.
Many people purchase new phones only to get frustrated by the overabundance of pre-installed software: crapware. Recently, a reader contacted me about this issue:
I recently purchased the Samsung Galaxy S3 and I noticed that there are Google programs that are pre-installed on the device. These applications are able to access all of my information and this really bothers me. I called Samsung and their response was they are sorry but the programs cannot be removed and they cannot refund me for my purchase. Whether I use these programs or not they can control everything. It is a good phone and works well but I did not agree to give my information to anyone who wants it. Please give me information on whether there is anything I can do about this matter. I have no interest in keeping a device that is infringing on my privacy and I want everyone else to know that there is a very large problem at hand.
I get a lot of similar emails, which usually end up getting a short response such as, tough.
This issue of pre-installed software isn’t anything new, nor is the fact that “Google’s programs . . . are able to access [a lot] of information,” but I think I need to dispel a few myths:
First, Google’s programs cannot control your device. Most of the Google-built apps do not come pre-loaded on any device. Rather, you’ll have to download them from Google Play or some other Android store. Any pre-installed apps are permissions-based apps for services. There is a Google Settings app, which controls sync between Google+ and Android.
Second, no app will control your phone. Apps control services, not they system. Further, Android is developed in such a way as to only allow the apps to access particular Android system services (e.g., GPS, phone calls, SMS) and not the entire device. Android calls these access allowances, permissions. The apps must ask for certain access permissions, and you must grant those by clicking “OK” or “install.”
Third, you use your Google account (Gmail) to create a sync between your device and Google. The Google account controls the transfer between the information contained on your device and Google’s cloud. You can bypass the Google account setup by clicking “Skip” on the setup screen.
Fourth, no matter what you do, “they” know. Search Google for cell phone triangulation where you’ll find an array of good, bad, and ugly. Cell phone triangulation has been around along time, and it’s used quite often to catch someone.
Finally, as spy novel enthusiasts know, the only way to be certain about limited government intrusions is to disconnect altogether – no email, no phone, and meet in public parks and coffee shops. Recently, a federal judge in New York ruled (ACLU story) that cell phones users do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy unless they turn off their cell phones. I believe we’ll see a lot more of these types of rulings.
If you’re really, really, really concerned about your privacy invasion, you can do a couple things:
- Get rid of all electronic devices and abandon accounts. See my “finally” note above.
- Turn off “geolocation” on your phone: Settings > Location > uncheck all boxes under Location ON Settings.
- Check app permissions before installing any applications
- Deal with reputable developers, carriers, and manufacturers
- Check out EFF’s Surveillance Self-Defense Project
- Remove the battery from your device except to make phone calls
- Abandon your Google account (see number 1 above)
- Disable your phone’s bloatware
- Accept the “new” reality
Thanks for the questions, but, as you see, I’m not so sympathetic when someone shoots off their alarmist view of cell phone privacy. With the convenience of a computer in your pocket, you’re also delivering (relinquishing) some privacy to the cell phone carriers, app developers, and ultimately, the government. Don’t forget the Arabian proverb about the camel in the tent.