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Palm accused of spying on Pre owners

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If you're a Palm Pre user, it appears that your phone is telling Palm where you are, which apps you're using, how long you're using them, and when those apps crash.

So says a blog post by one Unix-savvy Pre investigator.

Debian-developer Joey Hess told The Reg that he had no idea Palm was uploading his personal data until he dug up log files indicating it was doing so.

Hess told us that finding the information was a relatively simple matter. "I've earlier 'rooted' my Pre by following a simple procedure I found on the net," he said, "and so I can log into it and see all the files in its operating system. From there, finding these log files is nothing any curious Linux user couldn't do."

Hess also confirmed our experience with the Pre: No notification of such data being sent is displayed to the user.

Hess is particularly concerned about his location being sent to Palm. "I'm shocked that GPS location info is apparently being sent to Palm on a daily basis," he told us. "It seems both unnecessary and a large privacy risk."

When The Reg ask Palm for clarification, the company responded with a statement that read, in part, "Our privacy policy is like many policies in the industry and includes very detailed language about potential scenarios in which we might use a customer’s information, all toward a goal of offering a great user experience. For instance, when location based services are used, we collect their information to give them relevant local results in Google Maps. We appreciate the trust that users give us with their information, and have no intention to violate that trust."

Palm's Privacy Policy, however, makes no direct reference to why the company might want to know which apps you're using and for how long, other than an oblique statement that its uses your personal information to "measure interest in our products and services."

Palm's statement also said that it "offers users ways to turn data collecting services on and off." But the company has yet to clarify what this is referring to.

"As a software engineer," Hess added, "I can understand why Palm's engineers would be interested in the crash data, but the data gathered during a crash includes potentially private information, such as a list of all the programs running on the phone. Also, it is much more respectful of the user to ask before sending such crash data."

We agree. Notification is key, and an opt-in provision as is used when a Mac OS X app crashes would also be welcome.

Hess also emphasized to us that he has not actually observed information being sent out over the network. "So far I've only seen log files indicating that it has sent out such information. I hope that someone will see my blog post and be able to take a look at the actual data as it's sent over the wire to confirm." ®

Bootnote

Hess's blog post suggests that to stop the uploading of info, some system files can be altered, including removing /usr/bin/contextupload. When we asked him if doing so might cause a problem with the regular usage of the Pre, he answered "It's certainly possible that it might," before adding "My Pre is working ok so far."

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