Remote control

Published on August 8, 2014

You’re in another city and you’re hungry. You take out your smartphone and fire up an application to find a decent restaurant.

A message pops up asking you if the app can access your location. Why? So it can choose restaurants in the immediate vicinity. It saves you the trouble of punching in your current address.

For most, this is a no-brainer. In fact, most third-party software regularly gains access to information and hardware contained within our mobile devices. If you use one to make a call, it has to access the phone. If you use one to take a picture, it has to access the camera.

It’s something we’ve come to take for granted. Perhaps too much so.

In recent days, millions of people have discovered that they’ve just given Facebook the ability to do just about anything with their smart devices — specifically Android devices. The unprecedented access comes with the new Messenger app, which Facebook clients now have to download separately to continue using the service on the Facebook platform.

For an app to gain access to the internal workings of your phone, it has to gain permission. As in the above case, sometimes it’s requested on the spot. But increasingly, providers ask for blanket approval for access through long, padded terms of service. Hardly anyone bothers to read them. They just click “approve” and carry on.

This is not surprising. A 2008 study published in the journal I/S found the average customer would have to devote an entire month of workdays — 250 hours — to absorbing every term of service that applied to them. It’s like reading “War and Peace” seven times.

The Messenger terms, however, read like something out of a U.S. National Security Agency handbook. Without express permission, Messenger can operate your camera and microphone at any time, make calls and text people, and gain access to your contacts and phone logs.

This seems to go way beyond the permission to do so when the client is in the saddle. One clause reads, “this permission allows the app to use the camera at any time without your confirmation.”

The odd thing about this is that many people don’t seem to care. Even some of those who crow about the importance of privacy see no contradiction in sharing their most intimate and career-risking details online.

It’s part of our new interconnected world that giant service providers like Facebook and Google have unprecedented access to our lives. And no matter how secure their databanks may be, it gives them a frightening degree of power.

It’s not just a concern about whose hands that information may fall into. Recent revelations suggest it’s already in the wrong hands.

Last month, Britain’s privacy commissioner said it was investigating Facebook over a 2012 psychological experiment that altered the number of positive and negative posts seen in about 700,000 Facebook feeds. Canada’s watchdog also plans to look into the affair.

Collecting and analyzing personal data is bad enough. Altering and manipulating it is downright Orwellian.

Big Brother is watching — and he’s got your permission to do so.