Palm Pre privacy invasion

One great example of why we need more open source based mobile phones is that we can actually discover all the undocumented "features" of the devices that we use every day.

If I use a device for personal things like my private communication, my scheduling, contact information and similar, then I have to put a certain amount of trust into that device. I trust that the vendor selling this device will provide a device that is safe for me to use and where my information is stored securely.

However, the amount of closedness and control that equipment vendors and GSM operators traditionally have in the mobile world is a big conflict with my personal interest for privacy and security.

You can see this reflected by SIM Toolkit specifications that allow the operator to read and modify your phonebook, or with flash over the air where the operator is able to modify the software on your device.

In fact, in such cases the operators treat the device like they own the device, when in fact the customer has bought the device and owns it.

Since Palm's WebOS is [to a large extend] based on Free / Open Source software, we can analyze in more detail what they are doing. As it was pointed out in this blog post two months ago, they seem to regularly receive information when you were using which application, as well as the GPS coordinates of the phone!

This is outrageous, especially without any way for the user to switch it off - or even better: Have an opt-in, i.e. off by default but who wants it can enable it.

Palm has responded to it, but as that very same posting indicates: The Palm Privacy Policy is not even completely listing the information for which it is applicable.

I don't think Palm is particularly worse than other companies. But the question is: How do we know? How does the user know what his phone wants to communicate to the operator or the manufacturer without his knowledge or authorization? The only two ways I can imagine are:

  • by having more open source software on the phone, so users can study the code, determine what it is doing and then modify the software to remove such privacy invading surveillance features
  • by having more people with their own GSM/GPRS networks with projects like OpenBSC, where we can actually see from the network side what the phone is trying to do. Unfortunately GPRS support is still not finished in OpenBSC, but work is ongoing.

Since the Palm Pre units so far (CDMA and GSM) are not locked down, i.e. you can become root and modify the software, it will be much easier to have "custom ROMs" (where the name ROM is stupid since it is flash, ...)

I can only hope that people will quickly come up with custom Linux based firmware images for the Palm excluding the surveillance features.

In addition, everyone should write a letter to Palm, complaining about those features and the fact there is no way to opt out of them.