This Is Unacceptable

As I write I am reminded that the web as we know it is 20 years old this month.

Ruefully that also reminds me that I have been designing web sites for that long and, by masterful deduction, conclude that I am also 20 years older. I assume that, like the painting of Dorian Gray, I have also lost my good looks. As a reminder, Dorian was a corrupt young man who somehow kept his youthful beauty eternally but a special painting gradually revealed his inner ugliness to all. However my simile hopefully does not apply to me; much to my regret, however, it applies to the web – or rather the way it is being manipulated to suit the big and powerful.
Most of us understand the concept of intellectual property and copyright. Like all designers I am proud of my work and believe it to be part of my intellectual property. Just like copyright, by the fact that you have written something original ownership of it is vested in you at that moment unless you are a plagiarist. However I do take offence when my work is manipulated to serve a third party without as much as a “may we please?” or indeed any other prior warning that my rights will be transgressed. Let me explain!
I have encouraged many of my clients to make mobile websites available to enhance their business – all of which I have written about recently. As part of this diversification I have suggested the incorporation of Skype. That would allow them to provide a “free call” feature for their prospective clients. After all, that is just good marketing. My clients all agreed to this approach and code was generated to facilitate just that.
I am sure we have all know of Skype for many years and indeed have used it as a great free Internet-based phone system to stay in touch with friends and family who also had Skype on their computers.
It was not until I started to test my new designs incorporating the appropriate phone numbers that I discovered the ugly side of things. The problem is simple enough. If you have Skype installed on your computer and you use any flavour of web browser, then there is a good chance that Skype highlights phone numbers on any and all web pages containing phone numbers viewed in your browser. I find this Skype “feature” intrusive. This Skype modification is not aesthetically appealing, is obtrusive, does not flow nicely with the page design and sometimes breaks the layout of the page.
The nasty aspect is that when you install Skype it surreptitiously installs a browser add-on tha injects its code into any web page on your screen. Some software that may do similar things does give you the option of avoiding that type of install. There are times when that option is buried in the finest of fine prints on the installation screen but at least it is there.
It did not take long to find that this problem was also identified by others. This issue had been reported to Skype almost four years ago. It seems that Skype views this as a feature and not an issue and therefore declined to do anything about it. That sort of arrogance does not enhance the image of an otherwise highly regarded company.
However, Skype has just recently been acquired by Microsoft for a mere $US8.7 billion.
Since then curious changes have taken place.
According to new surveillance laws being proposed in countries from the United States to Australia would force makers of online chat software to build in backdoors for wiretapping. For years, the popular video chat service Skype has resisted taking part in online surveillance but that may have changed. And if it has, Skype is not telling.
Historically, Skype has been a major barrier to law enforcement agencies. Using strong encryption and complex peer-to-peer network connections, Skype was considered by most to be virtually impossible to intercept. Police forces in Germany complained in 2007 that they couldn’t spy on Skype calls and even hired a company to develop covert Trojans to record suspects’ chats. At around the same time, Skype happily went on record saying that it could not conduct wiretaps because of its “peer-to-peer architecture and encryption techniques”.
Recently, however, hackers alleged that Skype made a change to its architecture this year that could possibly make it easier to enable “lawful interception” of calls. Skype rejected the charge and stated that the chat service “co-operates with law enforcement agencies as much as is legally and technically possible”.
Yet one month after its purchase, Microsoft was granted a patent for “legal intercept” technology designed to be used with VoIP services like Skype to “silently copy communication transmitted via the communication session”. Skype also changed its privacy policy allowing them to hand over “personal data, communications content and/or traffic data to an appropriate judicial, law enforcement or government authority as much as is legally and technically possible”.
Now, don’t go uninstalling Skype and putting on your tinfoil hat. Once again, this could all just be a coincidence. Even if it wasn’t, Microsoft is probably just readying Skype to comply with the changes to the law. I doubt that any law enforcement agencies will want details of what you had for breakfast, how much you love your dog or granny’s pea soup recipe.
From a designer’s point of view there are ways to negate Skype’s clever coding; it just means a little more work at the coding stage. Yet this is becoming the way of the world; one-fifth of your iPhone apps are snatching your contact data without ever asking for your consent.
Antivirus company Bitdefender looked at over 65,000 apps that are currently available in the App Store. From that analysis, they found that an alarming 18.6% of them can access your address book without you ever knowing about it. Even more, 41% can track your location data without obtaining your consent.
Only 57.5% of the apps they looked at actually encrypt your data.
At least Android asks for your permission and lists all the points of intrusion. The catch is that if you decline you cannot install that app. Here some common sense needs to prevail: for instance a spell checker should not want to access your contact list, if it does don’t install it. Similar logic applies to other apps.
It all becomes a greater can of worms as Google has now declared its intention to also index your emails and include them in your searches. They claim that this will improve one’s searching experience. What I do not understand is …”How and why?”
I give up! Either one goes with the flow or acquires some very rich friends with sufficient funds to fight the system.

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