Two Major Privacy Violations You Probably Didn’t Notice

Somehow, I managed to channel my security hero Bruce Schneier, who manages to find all that is amazingly stupid and insane about security, from the TSA to RSA.  And I accidentally stumbled across some major privacy violations that didn’t appear to be privacy violations on the surface.

We take a lot of things for granted today when it comes to multiple device access and our privacy.  On the one hand, we expect our data to synchronize seamlessly from device to desktop and back again.  But at the same time, we don’t want our private data stored any longer than we need it.  As it turns out, those two tenets are in direct conflict with each other in a sinister and subtle way.

Big Brother is Watching YouSuppose you use Skype and have it on a mobile device and a computer.  Great–You sign into your Skype account from a laptop and see your contacts.  Doing the same from your iPhone and you get the same list.  No surprises there, right?

Now let’s say you had a conversation (IM-based chat) with a business associate about some sensitive account data relating to a current client.  And just in case, because you use your mobile device around the very same client, you want to make sure that conversation isn’t visible at all, ever.  So you delete the conversation from Skype on your laptop.

At this point, you haven’t logged into your Skype on the mobile device.  You’d expect that conversation data to delete in both devices, right?

Turns out, you’d be dead wrong on that one.

Skype saves these conversations on their server and puts them on any device where you have their software installed. “Ah!” you say, “but you forgot about the Privacy options!”

Skype Privacy Options
The Iron Clad Guard of Privacy, right?

True enough, I didn’t mention them–so now suppose you have “Keep History For: No history” set in your Skype options (the Iron Clad Privacy Guard(tm)!).  And you cleared your conversations out from Skype on the laptop.  And you’ve never logged into Skype using your mobile device…you’re good now, right?

Nope.  That conversation is still on Skype’s servers, but gone from your laptop.  Next time you login to the mobile and go back in the history, it’s still there!  And here’s the kicker:  you can’t get rid of it either!

This isn’t unique to Skype.  I was able to reproduce the same thing via Sent Messages in Facebook.  I specifically had deleted a bunch of old conversations I had with friends from my web browser version.  One day, I went in via my iPhone and voila, there they were all staring me in the face!  Facebook is storing your conversations from years ago (mine were 18+ months old), even when you’ve deleted them from your Inbox and Sent folder.

Why oh why would they do it?

Delete means delete, right?  Not really as it turns out.  There might be reasons these companies want to hang on to your data for a bit longer than when you want to…

  1. Legal reasons:  If you did something illegal, and law enforcement wants to come a-knocking, Facebook and Skype are covering their proverbial backsides.
  2. Ad targeting reasons:  Just like GMail searches your inbox for reasons to post an ad to you, Facebook is definitely doing the same.  Skype might be, but since they don’t have ads in their software, that seems less likely.
  3. Oops reasons:  They might want to be able to restore your “accidentally deleted” data if you call customer support in a panic.  This probably makes it easiest to look the customer in the eye if they discover it, but it’s probably the least used reason of the three, sadly.
  4. Other, Secret, More Sinister reasons:  I’m no paranoid conspiracy theorist, but there’s always the outside chance of some other reason they want to keep your data around that I haven’t mentioned, so we’ll leave this catch-all for good measure.

Regardless of the reason, these create huge loopholes for those concerned about actual privacy.  The fact that neither of these is mentioned in the terms of service is not surprised, but definitely problematic.

Developers:  Make sure your apps don’t do bad things like this.  When people find out, the negative publicity isn’t worth the supposed safety margin gained above.

Next time you think that “private” conversation is cleared from Never-Never-Land when you turn on those Privacy Options, you’d better think again.

2011: Year of the iPad

Happy New Year to everyone, first of all.  And second, I hope you managed to get your hands on an iPad in the past 6 months because if you haven’t, you’re going to want one.

Why?  Because 2011 is definitely going to be the Year of the iPad.  Not by an inch, more like a mile.  Let me explain why…

Now that I own an iPad, I finally get the hoopla over these devices.  I wasn’t impressed when they came out and wasn’t really planning on getting one for the holidays.  Thanks to a generous visit from Santa, who despite my best efforts to the contrary with acerbic blog posts considered me worthy of one under the tree, I now own one along with my wife.  And I’m impressed.  Very impressed.

iPad:  The Must-Have Intermediate Computing Device

iPad is King, at least in 2011I’ll coin a new term for tablets: intermediate computing devices, although I’m hoping someone comes up with a better one in the future.  To me, the tablet represents a new class of device that isn’t quite in the same class as netbooks and mobile PCs, although categorically they tend to be lumped together.  These devices fill a gap where a PC is too cumbersome, but a smartphone isn’t powerful enough, or even large enough.  The iPad is clearly king of the tablets right now. I say that, not as an Apple Fanboi, but as a solid convert to the notion this device does actually have a place in your house when you already own a desktop, laptop, media computer (e.g. AppleTV), and smartphone.

Each platform has tremendous utility within its own domain (smartphones are great for keeping in touch on the go, but lousy for typing blog posts, and the laptop is strong where the smartphone is weak, etc).  It wasn’t until I actually owned the iPad that I suddenly found places where I really wanted more than my smartphone but much less than my laptop.

Let’s look at a specific example: my wife and I both love Rummy Tile.  Getting the boxed game out after the kids are in bed is a bit of a hassle, and we can’t play on anything except a very flat and hard surface.  Enter the iPad:  each of us downloaded an iPad version and can play against each other sitting in bed via Bluetooth.  Comfort and convenience, meet marital competition (For the record, my wife continues to beat me overall, even at the electronic version).

Not satisfied with that?  How about this:  I leave my email open on my laptop downstairs all the time.  Doing so prevents my iPhone from getting email, so I find myself having to run down 2 levels at night to shut down Outlook so I can see email in the morning when I get up.  Not with my iPad!  I installed Team Viewer and can now remotely login to my laptop, shut it down, or do anything I need on the computer (like grab an attachment from an old email, which I frequently need as well).

Of course, don’t forget the real estate improvement over the smartphone genre:  web browsing is a treat by comparison.  My wife and I need to lookup things all the time, and the iPad is the perfect device for on-demand, quick-and-easy web surfing.  No waiting for boot time of the laptop, no struggle to read the data displayed on the smartphone.

And…The Competition Sucks

After I got the iPad, I thought I’d check out the competition and see how the lay of the land was looking by comparison.  It’s not good for the Android folks Android Tablets are lacking...right now:

  • The Dell Streak requires a data plan from, yep, you guessed it, AT&T.  It’s cheap if you get the two year data-only plan at $30/month, but as pricey as the iPad otherwise.
  • The Google Android tablet has very mediocre reviews to date on Amazon.  When the “best helpful review” for it says, “For the price it’s not bad…”, you know you’re in trouble.
  • Two of the most promising contenders that generated huge buzz (Notion Ink and the Kno (aimed at college students)) just made the Wired Vaporware 2010 list.  Oops.
  • The Maylong $99 tablet sold at Walgreens got scathing reviews earlier this year, and continues to hold the distinction of “worst gadget ever“.
  • Viewsonic’s G-tablet isn’t exactly burning up sales with comments like “With some sweat equity, you can get it to work…”, and “Next gen hardware, but software needs improvement”.  At it’s current price, you can get a 3G iPad, and save on your Advil bills to offset the pain.
  • And other low-end competitors are getting smacked around too, like the Augen NBA7800ATP.
  • EDIT:  For those wondering why I omitted the Samsung Galaxy, see the comments.

Out of the box, the iPad just works, which isn’t something you can say of most tablets mentioned above.  At the current prices and capabilities, the Android tablets aren’t a clear win as a lower-end device.  The experience is often so poor as to be unusable, and the higher end models are not significantly better than the iPad for nearly the same cash outlay.  Never mind that engineers looking at the Android have discovered major issues with the compositing and view system which are primarily software-based, giving extremely poor responsiveness in the touch interface and the animation rates.  Android has a ways to go here–either due to hubris or lack of experience.

And while Windows 7 mobile at least got that part right, they are still lagging heavily in this market and will likely remain so for the balance of the year.  The market trends clearly favor Apple’s iPad as the hottest “mobile PC device” available, for 3 quarters running.

In short, no one else has a good handle on the market and user experience aside from Apple.

The Golden Last Frontier of Mobile App Development

Apple App Store, the Place We Love to HateLastly, what about the developer community?  Well, you can complain about the App Store all you want, but the Android Marketplace still isn’t a whole lot better than when I last wrote about it.  Furthermore, the app selection for Android is still considerably worse than than for iPad.

But the real reason you want to get in on the action is that iPad apps aren’t cheap, and therefore command higher revenues from the App Store.  The iPad versions of apps are often selling for several multiples (sometimes deserved, sometimes not) over their iPhone counterparts.  Even though the average across all apps is only $1 higher for iPad apps, my experience looking at the top-selling apps is somewhat different.  Here are a few examples that clearly show a difference if you get in the good graces of the world:

App Name
iPhone Price iPad Price
Angry Birds: $0.99 $4.99
Plants vs. Zombies $2.99 $9.99
Fruit Ninja $0.99 $2.99
Cut the Rope $0.99 $1.99
UNO $0.99 $4.99

Some are the same in both (SlingPlayer, LogMeIn) but clearly the experience is vastly different.

In addition to the gaming possibilities of the device, the iPad opens up a whole new world for application development where the increased screen real estate makes a big difference (Netflix avoided the iPhone app for a long time and rightly so until the iPad came along…now it’s one of the top rated iPad apps in the store, and for good reason).  And there are precious few decent iPad utility applications out there, making a rich market for those who have the know-how and willingness to surf the treacherous waters of Jobs & Co.

Unless a miracle happens, it looks like Apple has the tablet world by the tail for at least this year.  In 2012, assuming the Mayan gods don’t come to punish all of us for bad John Cusack movies, the landscape may change dramatically but for now it’s Steve’s world and we’re just computing in it.