Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

Whose Phone Is It Anyway?

When telephones were still solidly connected to the wall, either by being bolted on to it or by an umbilical (sometimes consisting of one or more phone extension cords) it was pretty clear who owned them, the phone company did. And bad things (such as disconnection) would happen to you if you connected something to the network that wasn’t authorized.

When computers were still unconnected to each other using networks it was pretty clear who owned them too, the company or person that paid for it did.

Life was simple and all was good.

Then one day in the 60’s, before I was even born the world changed in a remarkable way though it would take decades before the implications would become clear. The idea of networked computers first saw the light of day and by the early seventies the first real networks of computers were a fact.

Telephones were still mostly tethered to walls, apart from some very important people who had access to ‘mobile phone technology’. In practice this meant that they gave up the trunks of their cars to enormous radio transmitters and some pretty bulky interface components in the interior. Such was the price of being an important enough person that your thoughts had to be available to those that needed instructions or information.

For the most part life was still simple and all was good, the few people that had advance warning of a tremendous shift seemed to ignore it. There was a thing in the 60’s called ‘the mother of all demos’ and it successfully extrapolated about 30 years of the future, up to and including the world wide web.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s mobile phones underwent a revolutionary shrinking and suddenly instead of a select few a much larger number of people got access to them. These phones were still quite bulky (the size of a toaster, maybe a bit thinner) and weighed a lot but those disadvantages did not seem to slow their adaptation at all. Suddenly not only royalty, presidents and the CEOs of the very largest companies had the power of consultation and direction at every hour of the day, it was available to just about every business person and the wealthier private individuals.

Computers were still treating being networked as ‘optional’, though in offices networks were now commonplace. Phones and computers occupied very distinct networks (though for the ‘long haul’ computer networks often employed telephone lines altered specifically for that purpose, so called ‘dedicated lines’ which had their filters removed) and phone companies still viewed the gear they rented to you as their property and the contracts in place were pretty specific on that. You paid a monthly fee for the equipment. In some countries the rules had been relaxed a bit and third party gear was permitted but in most cases only after an expensive approval process. After all, the phone company did not want any weird/dangerous/unlicensed gear on its network and infrastructure, the telephone network was - and is - critical infrastructure and only trusted parties are supposed to be on it.

In ‘95 a revolution happened. Suddenly unconnected computers went from being useful and productive machinery to sad lonely devices that did not have access to the majority of the available information resources embodied in this new fangled thing called the world-wide-web.

Phones continued to shrink and mobile phones shrunk even faster. By 1998 the mobile phone revolution was well under way and even though the phone network was still very much holy there were some inroads into the phone companies territory. For one cable companies started to offer phone services (which has since been mirrored by traditional telcos offering TV channels). You were allowed to buy your equipment rather than rent it. Clever phone company, sell you a peripheral of their network at a huge mark-up and then make you pay for it again whenever you use it for its intended purpose. I think that’s called a ‘win-win’ ;). There was no more lower limit on owning a phone, everybody seemed to have one, including kids! In just 30 years the ability to communicate world wide at any given moment of the day had gone from being a privilege only afforded the wealthiest and the most powerful to children that were still learning how to spell properly, an incredible example of commoditization.

Computer owners continued to see their machines as theirs almost without exception, and the network card was clearly a peripheral with the browser just another application on the computer. The demarcations were very clear but the pattern of convergence was at least as clear and with it came a slow blurring of the lines.

By the mid ‘00s we were well under way in revolutionary territory. Suddenly pocket computers with internet connections became wide-spread. And regular computers without an internet connection all but disappeared. Providers required the installation of their software on your computer in an attempt to establish a beach-head.

Phone companies selling phones from various vendors had long also established a beach-head on your phone, the so called ‘baseband processor’. It is a dedicated computer that talks to the phone company network, the software that it runs is not under the control of the owner of the phone and upgrades and or functionality are not transparent at all.

And so we arrive today. Where you think that you own the computer that you use and the phone in your pocket. You see the network as a peripheral of your computer and your phone, with your device as a node in a network operated by ‘peers’.

But that’s not the view of the phone company and your ISP. They see that phone in your pocket and that computer on your desk as a peripheral of their infrastructure.

In smartphones the line of demarcation runs somewhere in the middle of a circuit board on a channel between the baseband processor and the main processor. But memory of the mainprocessor and other peripherals may be readable/writeable/controllable by the baseband processor. You won’t know about it as long as they don’t tell you about it. That phone in your pocket is about as nice an analogy of a trojan horse as you could imagine, you’re lugging along a ton of software that runs on behalf of others and you can’t even inspect it.

Meanwhile, on the home network that demarcation line runs roughly between your router (unless you built it yourself) and the computers connected to that router. In some cases special software has been installed on your computer (which serves absolutely no other purpose than to control what you can do with your internet connection, monitoring and control).

This situation will persist as long as people accept full fledged computers running tons of software supplied by third parties with convenience rather than data ownership as the main focus. So don’t be surprised if the phone company has access to all your contacts, to each and every email you’ve ever sent via your phone, to each and every website that you have visited (even if it was with https), to the voice contents of all your calls (historically they had that last one already but with the technology at the time such massive datacollection would have been all but impossible).

So, whose phone is it anyway? You paid for it, you should own it. But the phone company and your ISP have a different view of the world than you do.

To them you’re nothing more than a money making peripheral, just like in the old days, when phones were still wired solidly to the wall.