After our recent discussion of privacy on the web, I am a bit troubled by the possible implications of Apple’s acceptance of the Google Voice app. The reason why I am worried is that this app that seems so wonderful and alluring to users but actually means people will be filtering all of their info through Google at a potentially high cost, and it just made an enormous jump in its user-base.
With this application, one can send and receive texts for free, make free domestic calls and receive large discounts on international calls thanks to some clever rerouting of call placement. One can also have their voicemails transcribed so they can be read like regular text messages or emails, it is simple to integrate one’s address book, and one can set up personalized greetings for each caller. On the surface, these all appear to be very useful, beneficial additions to one’s iPhone, but if we look a bit deeper they could bring someone a lot of grief.
For example, one is able to send and receive free texts because they are through Google. We have already talked about the possible embarrassing scenarios that could arise from having Google remember your search history and personal information, so it should be easy to guess what could happen if Google were able to read and track everything you say to someone over SMS. Also, a far worse problem could be if some devious hacker were able to tap into Google Voice and abuse it by reading and releasing someone’s texts. I might be a bit on the paranoid side, but the thought of a Google Voice version of FireSheep almost gives me the shudders. If this were to happen, we probably would not all look as guilty as Tiger Woods, but I for one have had some private conversations that I would really prefer were not made public.
Also, the feature that allows for free domestic calls and cheaper international calls could be turned against you if a hacker were to weasel into Google Voice. It is one thing to overshare on sites such as Facebook or Twitter, but it is an entirely different beast if a hacker could always tell where you were just because you called a friend using Google Voice. It would bring a whole new dimension to the problem that the “PleaseRobMe” website tried to address, and would be particularly invasive seeing as how Google Voice integrates your contacts and address book, thus exposing your friends and family.
Some more worrying aspects of this ‘innovation’ have to do with security from the government. In the Zittrain reading, it was said that the FBI has apparently used OnStar as a “mobile bug” to listen in on people’s conversations in OnStar-equipped vehicles. Who is to say that the FBI or the government would not similarly ask Google for access to someone’s Google Voice account to spy on him or her? Moreover, what if the government decided to do a network wide search for any type of contraband, similar to the search Michael Adler described in the Zittrain reading? Just a thought.
Basically, I am a bit afraid that Apple’s recent adoption of the Google Voice app could mean its users would become what’s really ‘tethered’ in that the app could be used as an innovative tool to abuse privacy in a way that regular use of Google or any other Internet site could not compete with, seeing as it accesses something far more personal: our phones.