Big Brother Is Watching Your Blackberry

With every high-tech gadget we buy, we give up a little more of our privacy.

ByABC News
July 27, 2009, 8:23 AM

July 27, 2009 — -- Don't look now, but no matter where you go, you're connected. We -- or most of us, at least -- have opened our front doors to large corporations, hardware manufacturers, software firms and search engines. We have allowed them to rifle through our jacket pockets and handbags. And now they can do as they wish with us, or do the bidding of the powers-that-be -- in the form of a totalitarian government, for example.

Don't believe it? Well, consider a recent incident involving the Internet bookseller Amazon and two works by -- ironically enough -- George Orwell. Amazon had been selling the titles, "1984" and "Animal Farm," to owners of its Kindle reader, the special e-book device the bookseller developed. However, it turned out that the publishers of the Orwell books didn't own the electronic rights to the works. And so, to the surprise of buyers, Amazon erased the two books -- which had been paid for and delivered -- from the electronic reader. Amazon's readers had unwittingly purchased pirate copies, it turned out.

Now if this had happened in a normal book store, the customer would never even have known. A bookseller who had mistakenly sold pirated copies of a book would never have snuck into customers' living rooms, pulled the offending books from their shelves and left cash to the value of the purchase price on the kitchen table as recompense. In real life there are practical and legal obstacles to this sort of behaviour. But in the electronic world, it was simple. Probably Amazon won't even have to worry about legal problems relating to the action.

This is just one of many examples pointing to a dramatic change in our lives we will experience in the coming years. In the age of networked digital devices, it seems that values such as the sanctity of the private sphere, the protection of our private property and the inviolability of our correspondence no longer count for very much.

Whether it's gaming consoles, Blackberrys, iPhones, Windows PCs, Apple computers, Blu Ray players or the next big trend in personal computing, the netbook, digital devices that are permanently or frequently in contact with their manufacturer are here to stay. All of these devices can be remotely modified at any time through software updates. So you could say that an iPhone doesn't really belong to you -- at least not in quite the same way that your refrigerator or bicycle does. The manufacturers have us all on a leash.

In his 2008 book "The Future of the Internet -- And How to Stop It," American writer Jonathan Zittrain writes about the danger of what he calls "tethered appliances." They are becoming ever more common, he argues, because software updates are supposed to protect us from attacks by hackers or viruses -- just think of the monthly ritual of the Windows update. Using this logic, Apple can dictate the terms and conditions under which software can be developed for the iPhone. The iPhone is not a PC -- not everyone can write software for the phone and not everything can be installed on it. Hence Apple -- like Amazon -- reserves the right to remotely meddle with your iPhone at any time and without the consent of the user, in order to delete objectionable applications. All with the best of intentions, of course.