Friday, January 14, 2011


At risk of poking a stick into the cages of readers who wear tinfoil hats, allow me to introduce you to a term that will become popular this year. “Traitorware” is software or hardware on your device that acts behind your back to betray your privacy. It is sort of a variant of spyware but the difference is that it is backed by large companies like Apple, Sony, Xerox, Intel and the Secret Service.

For example, your digital camera may embed tiny bits of code into photographs that include the camera's serial number or your GPS coordinates. This is handy if you want to know where you were when a picture was taken. But the dark side is that if you upload a vacation picture of the entire family to an online service such as Facebook, the data can be used to track the exact date, time and location where the photo was taken. You may as well plant a sign in your yard that says, “Attention all burglars: please burgle me!”

Years ago, the Secret Service and Xerox collaborated on a means to incorporate a secret code on every printed page which could be used to identify the printer and its owner. Most color printers utilize this technology and it cannot be disabled. The technology was designed to help law enforcement agencies identity forged documents and counterfeit money. Counterfeiters should be caught and convicted of their crimes, of course, but what does that mean to an anonymous corporate whistleblower who wants to expose corruption using a printed letter to a news agency?

Apple has recently introduced a patent that will allow an iPhone to record your voice, take a picture of your location, record your heartbeat, and send that information back to Apple. Good uses for this technology include enabling Apple to erase the device and remotely retrieve the user's "sensitive data" if the device is stolen. But their patent also suggests that Apple may use the technology to limit "unauthorized" uses of its phones such as jailbreaking or installing unapproved software.

Perhaps the most infamous example of traitorware was the Sony rootkit. In 2005 Sony BMG produced music CD's which secretly installed software onto computers in order to thwart making multiple copies. Unfortunately, the software left a back door open on all infected PC’s which would give Sony, or a hacker, control over the PC. If a consumer tried to remove the offending rootkit, the software would execute code that would disable the CD drive and even trash the PC.

There is an infamous quote from one of the founders of Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy, that reads, “You have zero privacy anyway, get over it.” It is sort of a harsh comment but unfortunately it rings true. We are giving up more and more of our privacy every day. There isn’t much you as an individual can do unless you want to live off the land in the Canadian Rockies but you need to know about traitorware and take steps to minimize your exposure wherever possible.

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