Paul Rubin headshot

Emeritus Professor
Emory University

Professor Rubin’s main area of research is Law and Economics. He has written on many aspects of this subject. Recent papers have examined the effects of tort reform on death rates (tort reform leads to fewer accidental deaths) and the deterrent effect of capital punishment (it is a significant deterrent). He has also completed a survey article on the economics of the Bill of Rights. (These papers have been coauthored with colleagues at Emory.) A few years ago he completed a book on the evolution of economic and political behavior. He also write on policy issues, and has had several op-eds in the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers. Two favored topics are the regulation of pharmaceuticals and the economics of privacy and information.

Antitrust
Telecommunications

Advertising Consumer Protection Privacy Telecom

Popular Media

Carrier IQ: Another Silly Privacy Panic

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.

Filed under: advertising, consumer protection, privacy, regulation, technology, telecommunications, wireless