Carrier IQ: Another Silly Privacy Panic

Paul H. Rubin —  2 December 2011

By now everyone is probably aware of the “tracking” of certain cellphones (Sprint, iPhone, T-Mobile, AT&T perhaps others) by a company called Carrier IQ.  There are lots of discussions available; a good summary is on one of my favorite websites, Lifehacker;  also here from CNET. Apparently the program gathers lots of anonymous data mainly for the purpose of helping carriers improve their service. Nonetheless, there are lawsuits and calls for the FTC to investigate.

Aside from the fact that the data is used only to improve service, it is also useful to ask just what people are afraid of.  Clearly the phone companies already have access to SMS messages if they want it since these go through the phone system anyway.  Moreover, of course, no person would see the data even if it were somehow collected.  The fear is perhaps that “… marketers can use that data to sell you more stuff or send targeted ads…” (from the Lifehacker site) but even if so, so what?  If apps are using data to try to sell you stuff that they think that you want, what is the harm? If you do want it, then the app has done you a service.  If you don’t want it, then you don’t buy it.  Ads tailored to your behavior are likely to be more useful than ads randomly assigned.

The Lifehacker story does use phrases like “freak people out” and “scary” and “creepy.”  But except for the possibility of being sold stuff, the story never explains what is harmful about the behavior.  As I have said before, I think the basic problem is that people cannot understand the notion that something is known but no person knows it.  If some server somewhere knows where your phone has been, so what?

The end result of this episode will probably be somewhat worse phone service.

Paul H. Rubin

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PAUL H. RUBIN is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Economics at Emory University in Atlanta and formerly editor in chief of Managerial and Decision Economics. He blogs at Truth on the Market. He was President of the Southern Economic Association in 2013. He is a Fellow of the Public Choice Society and is associated with the Technology Policy Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Independent Institute. Dr. Rubin has been a Senior Economist at President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers, Chief Economist at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Director of Advertising Economics at the Federal Trade Commission, and vice-president of Glassman-Oliver Economic Consultants, Inc., a litigation consulting firm in Washington. He has taught economics at the University of Georgia, City University of New York, VPI, and George Washington University Law School. Dr. Rubin has written or edited eleven books, and published over two hundred and fifty articles and chapters on economics, law, regulation, and evolution in journals including the American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy, Quarterly Journal of Economics, Journal of Legal Studies, and the Journal of Law and Economics, and he frequently contributes to the Wall Street Journal and other leading newspapers. His work has been cited in the professional literature over 8000 times. Books include Managing Business Transactions, Free Press, 1990, Tort Reform by Contract, AEI, 1993, Privacy and the Commercial Use of Personal Information, Kluwer, 2001, (with Thomas Lenard), Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom, Rutgers University Press, 2002, and Economics, Law and Individual Rights, Routledge, 2008 (edited, with Hugo Mialon). He has consulted widely on litigation related matters and has been an adviser to the Congressional Budget Office on tort reform. He has addressed numerous business, professional, policy, government and academic audiences. Dr. Rubin received his B.A. from the University of Cincinnati in 1963 and his Ph.D. from Purdue University in 1970.

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