The future of computing is a battle for your personal information

The organisations that are looking to invent, and dominate the next era of computing are, at their heart, based on advertising revenue, and in the process of owning the future, these companies and their device-based competitors will treat the personal information of consumers as a prized commodity.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

Despite the best efforts of device vendors and their software brethren, the platform upon which all forms of computing are based is becoming increasingly commoditised. It should come as no surprise though, it follows a well-worn playbook of increasing performance for less cost that has been the defining characteristic of the industry since its conception.

With margins continuing to disappear from both hardware and software sales, the next goldmine for computing is in the gleaning of information from the repositories of information that businesses create in going about their activities. Look no further than the excitement surrounding big data for an example of how reprocessing information is looked upon as the next big thing.

The pure how of technology that was formerly the be all and end all of innovation has had a touch of its gloss removed by the who behind the technology.

In each area of technology impacting everyday consumers' lives, there are three companies that time and time again, find themselves battling for supremacy: Apple, Google, and Microsoft.

With the number of large multi-billion dollar acquisitions under its belt, and in an expanding number of categories, it's time to add Facebook into the league of behemoth technology companies looking to define our computing future.

And when you look at the current number of moonshot programs in the works — virtual reality, automated cars, cheap connectivity to the developing world — the companies whose revenue is tied to advertising look to be out in front at this stage.

It should worry the pants off us all that this is the state we find ourselves in.

If corporations are indeed "institutional psychopaths" as Joel Bakan says, then one that forms at the nexus of technology and advertising is akin to being offered roses from an attractive psychopath, only to find out much too late that they are brandishing a flamethrower behind themselves.

The internet has allowed the technology and advertising company to exist, and it is important to remember that out of the four companies mentioned earlier, only Microsoft has managed to avoid being beholden to it, in spite of its leadership's desire to join the others. Without the connectivity that exists today, Facebook and Google simply wouldn't exist, and Apple's iTunes and iDevices cash cows would become simply an irritating music player, and expensive feature-phone or e-reader respectively.

Connectivity has given us the devices we rely on everyday, and its combination with advertising has allowed companies to track and correlate our movements, tastes, and opinions.

With all the properly correct anger at the NSA for its multitude of programs to track individuals' activities on the internet, it seems to be a different story when it comes to publicly-traded entities.

It's little wonder that the NSA is interested in tapping into the data warehouses that Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and Google have, given that between them, the companies are able to trace pretty much every site we visit, detail many of our instant messages, derive who are friends and associates are, trawl through our emails, and peer into our mobile device address books.

Yet rather than having to lower themselves to nefarious ways of the national security agency, the corporations are able to rely on users happily handing personal information over.

The furore, and subsequent lack of action from users, over Facebook's 2012 experiment to manipulate the emotions of some of its users should not be surprising in terms of what the social network did — determining how to keep users on a page is fundamental to the way business on the modern internet works — but it allowed for the regular user to gain a rare insight into how their experience on the internet is "curated" by large companies.

For over a decade, Google has offered personalised search to its users, and when the feature rolled out across Google in 2010, people were shocked and up in arms. And yet, here we are in 2014 with no memory of a great Google boycott of 2010, and the search giant continues to perform over 100 billion search queries a month, and completely dwarfs its competition.

It seems that no private intrusion is unforgivable enough to stop users remaining with a service, nor is the sheer scale and potential of a big data profile of a user enough to make them consider their online activities.

While the internet-native Facebook and Google are held up as a pillar of a dystopian machine-scanning advertising fest, the other runners to decide where the computing industry heads, do not fare that much better.

Despite running what must be one of the most self-defeating and ironic advertising campaigns of all time when it came up with the Scroogled advertisements, Microsoft tried and failed for a number of years to become an internet company. If Steve Ballmer's plans of the last decade had worked, everyone would be searching on Bing, advertisers would be flocking to Bing Ads, and we'd all be signing into sites across the internet with our Windows Live IDs.

But that's not how it played out, and instead of trying to chase down the Google behemoth, the folks at Redmond are lurching towards a devices and services strategy — or whatever it is called this week — that appears more Cupertino-like.

Although Microsoft boasts of not scanning emails for the purposes of targeting advertising — it still has to scan email for malware, phising, and spam detection — many of the principles underpining the attacks of its scroogled campaign can, and should, be equally applied using Microsoft-owned services.

The cookie section of Microsoft's online advertising privacy statement shows that while it may not be at levels of Facebook or Google, it is far from pristine when it comes to tracking internet users.

"We use cookies to compile your online behavior in order to better target the ads we display to you and to analyze the operation of our advertising services," it says. "We also use web beacons to better understand your browsing patterns and compile analytics. These may include third-party web beacons, which are prohibited from collecting your personal information. We also use identifiers passed to us by app developers that choose to use our advertising services."

It is hardly the actions of a corporation that has decided to protect privacy as a fundamential tenet of its offering.

Further down the road to putting privacy first, whether it is altuistic or not, is the final, and highest-valued, member of our quartet of contenders that will define the future of computing: Apple.

While it is similar to Microsoft in terms of failing to step up to the plate in recent times with a successful traditional internet-based service offering, Apple's success in selling hardware and taking technology mainstream have more than made up for its prior failures.

But whereas Apple may appear almost saint-like when compared with the sodden trio discussed previously, Apple offers a different proposition, a non-obvious one that will remain a lurking threat despite Apple's best-efforts. The security of its software.

As Apple adds more and more functionality to its operating systems, and its iOS devices especially, into repositories of the most personal information. When the features of iOS 8 are taken full advantage of, a personal iPhone will contain the full address book of a users, email messages, photos, fingerprint data, personal health data thanks to HealthKit, and control of the users' home with HomeKit. It's a honeypot of information and control that will be attacked by the black hats of the world time and time again — it's too tempting a target to not try.

Apple has been relatively successful in the security of iOS itself, but there is more than one way to get to a user's device as was shown in the recent Apple ID hack. As Apple likes to gloat, it has the most passionate and engaged consumers, and it likely that many will only be too willing to trust Cupertino to take care of their most precious data.

It's a dangerous game, and for the sake of its users, one that Apple needs to stay ahead of, but its customary silence when things go awry does not instill confidence. The first successful Health app attack, or Homekit hack will not be a pretty sight.

But however good or bad Apple does on its side of the ledger, there will always be those following in its wake, and history has shown that the followers take a while to catch up to what is offered out of Cupertino.

It could be that the worse thing Apple could do in this area is to be entirely successful in the pushing even more personal data onto mobile devices. If having apps upload address books to their own services felt like a violation of personal data, wait until an also-ran service suffers an attack that leaks data revealing when and where a family is located within their residence.

In the end, rather than judging who is going to lead the computing industry over the next decade, the question for consumers is fast becoming: "Who do I decide to be the repository of all my data?"

Which service provider is trustworthy enough to handle geolocation, home automation, email and instant message communications, and can create storage secure enough to store a fingerprint and health data?

The old adage of putting one's eggs all in one basket is particularly relevant in this case. The answer should always be to trust no-one, especially a publicly-listed company that will do and sell off who knows how much personal data and control should the company's fortunes ever turn sour.

It's a shame that this is rarely considered by most users, and personal information is too readily handed over to provide the latest integration with a smart band or acknowledged and then dismissed because everyone happens to be on one particular social network.

Federation of data would seem like a natural solution, but it cannot compare to the allure of an integrated player, and the convenience of a device "Just knowing what you want".

Hopefully the exchange is worth it.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

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