If you are not involved in computer security then you would probably be very surprised to learn about the behaviour of some of the software on your computer. You may think you are double clicking on a program and then using it and that is all there is to it. But that isn’t always the case.
With computing being such a technical field it means that devices have all sorts of layers. The companies that make PCs and other computing devices, as well as software engineers, try to hide that complexity away from the average user in order to improve the experience of utilising their products – most people who use computers simply do not need to get that involved in how they work and, if they did, they quite possibly wouldn’t understand anyway.
For that reason computing has evolved over the years to the point where you could say that modern devices are sugar coated and gift wrapped before delivery. In fact, that is a key reason why an operating system such as Windows has fared so well – it is not, arguably, the best operating system out there but it is relatively simple to use and understand and that is what has attracted the huge user base it now enjoys. Some of the alternative operating systems are perceived, at least, to have a much higher learning curve and that is why the man in the street avoids playing with Linux and suchlike.
There is a drawback to using a device that has been simplified in such a manner and that is the fact that the average user has never had any need to learn about the complexities and finer workings of the machine that they use. As a result, they have no idea what is going on half of the time.
If their machine or software is causing a particular outcome to occur they just have to assume that is ok, assuming they even notice in the first place.
The problem here of course is the fact that computer manufacturers, software developers and even governments can get involved which is something we have seen far too much of recently.
There have been reports of a certain operating system having a backdoor embedded within it which communicates certain information back to the security services. Web sites, pieces of software and even encryption algorithms have been hijacked for reasons that should, at the very least, concern us all.
And the worst thing is that a lot of people still don’t know this is going on or, if they do, they don’t yet realise the long-term effects that this spying and data collection could have on all our lives. But when it comes to choosing hardware or software it is not just a case of deciding which companies you can trust.
A lot of the time it comes down to the point of view of both parties – the majority of computer users probably don’t want the NSA snooping on their web activity, or hardware manufacturers putting backdoors into their machines, or software that dials home – but those on the other side of the fence may feel that they have legitimate reasons for what they are doing.
In the case of the NSA et al, the security forces believe that snooping can aid their ongoing quest to beat terrorism and avoid potential loss of life. Thats a noble cause and one that I would imagine that most people support. But what lengths should they be able to go to enforce their views on security? Should we give up privacy in order to feel safer?
And when it comes to software that dials home should we worry about that? Of course the million dollar question here is who is the software communicating with and why? A manufacturer may want the ability to collect reports on how you are using their software, as well as logs of any errors you may encounter, in order to make improvements in the future. Whether any given piece of software sticks to those stated aims can be questionable at times and there are certainly some programs out there which will collect data beyond their remit and that applies to both ‘legitimate’ programs as well as malware.
Irrespective of whether your software is sending innocuous data back home, you may not like the fact that it is doing so because of the security holes that can create. if you have software on your machine that needs to connect to a remote server then that is a potential way in for the bad guys. It may not be the biggest hole in the world but it is still worth considering.
So, you do need to be aware that some elements of your computing experience may not be what they seem. Sometimes you will know that data is leaving your system. Whether you like that or not is a matter for you to decide. Equally, certain groups and organisations will be extracting information from you without your knowledge.
Whilst you may not be able to completely insulate yourself from those who would grab your data you certainly can be careful about what you install on your system. This is especially true when it comes to software that is known to call home for whatever reason.