Every year around Halloween hoards of thrill seekers fire up Ghost-O-Meter to see if the needle will wiggle. As the static crackles and the bulb brigh tens a lucky few make contact with the paranormal. If the app itself doesn’t scare the hell out of you, what I am going to tell you just might.
I need to make a confession.
While some may doubt the legitimacy of Ghost-O-Meter in general (and that’s fine) I need you to understand that what I am about to tell you is true. This is really happening.
Deep in the code of Ghost-O-Meter is a sinister module that I placed there for what I thought were legitimate reasons. I didn’t fully understand the ramifications of what I was doing and I have taken actions to remedy the situation which I will detail later.
This code hidden in my app is the eyeball of a massive creature. Follow the tendrils of this lens to its source and you will find the largest artificial intelligence man has ever created. The Central Brain.
Every time Ghost-O-Meter scans your room for traces of ghost artifacts, the app is also observing* you. It records its observations and silently transfers this data to Central Brain.
My app is just one of a swarm of apps that pump data into Central Brain. Every time an app developer like myself injects Central Brain’s code into our apps we are making a deal with the devil. What do we get in exchange for this partnership? The results might terrify you. Here is the type of information that Central Brain gives me access to…
Below is a U.S. map that plots all the ghost sitings from September, 2015.
All app usage is monitored by Central Brain which meticulously records the exact date and time when you encounter a ghost.
It records the GPS coordinates of where you are standing.
It knows what kind of device you are using, the version of operating system you are running, and who your service provider is. It even knows what language you speak.
I can watch in real-time as a map of your town lights up. I can see what part of the app you are using and when you make contact with the paranormal. But it gets worse.
And this is where it gets creepy.
While Ghost-O-Meter doesn’t access any personal data beyond what I mentioned above, and although I can’t tell who you are, that doesn’t mean you are anonymous to Central Brain. You see, Ghost-O-Meter is not Central Brain’s only way of seeing you. It has eyes everywhere.
The tracking code in Ghost-O-Meter is one of the most widely distributed scripts in use today. It is embedded in nearly every web page on the internet and most likely resides in the majority of apps installed on your phone and iPad. You can’t escape it.
And because it has so many eyes on you it doesn’t need to explicitly steal your personal data. No, because it is the largest artificial intelligence ever built it can extrapolate info about you with startling accuracy. It can infer your age, gender, interests, and other demographic data by connecting the dots between your web surfing habits and your app usage.
How much does Central Brain know about you?
Well, although I can do little more than count users, it would be foolish to assume that the genericized data I see isn’t a watered-down version of a much more granular profile of you. Did I mention that Central Brain also owns the most popular email program on earth? That’s right it stores, indexes, and sends your email.
If you haven’t already guessed, what I am calling Central Brain is actually Google Analytics. You’ve probably heard of it, but if not, Google Analytics is a tool used mainly by marketers to gain unprecedented insight into how people use and interact with websites and apps. Its ubiquity allows it to fly under everyone’s radar, but if we stop to analyze what this service is actually doing it isn’t hard to imagine scenarios where things could go horribly wrong.
Let’s entertain a couple hypothetical scenarios. Remember the scene in Ghostbusters where a portal opens and the spirits and demons from another dimension are about to destroy humanity?
If this scene came true, perhaps Google’s data could come in handy. A map of ghost locations is exactly what we would need in order to defeat the deadly invasion.
Despite the pending apocalypse, this would be the best case scenario: the data that was stolen from you actually allows Google to destroy the ghosts with pinpoint accuracy thanks to militarized self-driving cars. All brought to you with harmless ads for Stay Puft Marshmallows.
The worst case scenario is more like another popular Hollywood theme. Pick one of the movies where an evil corporation gains massive power and creates a monster that is capable of destroying the world. Personally, I like this one:
A super computer with tracking info for every human on earth? What could go wrong?
Okay, back to reality. So Google probably isn’t going to use this data to destroy the world (or save it). For right now they are content to just use what they know about you to show you better ads. But that doesn’t mean it is okay for me to put tracking code in my apps without your knowledge. That’s wrong. Right?
Am I a villain for allowing this code to tarnish the integrity of Ghost-O-Meter. That’s for you to decide. What I can tell you is that the newest version of Ghost-O-Meter has been cleansed of the tracking system from Central Brain.
Going forward Ghost-O-Meter will be disconnected from Google Analytics.
Some of you are understandably shocked and appalled by my revelation. Please don’t accept my apology. Instead, direct your rage at the apps that aren’t willing to relinquish their connection to Central Brain. Ghost-O-Meter has escaped, but the rest are still addicted to the data that Central Brain collects about you. Raise your voice with me and demand that other apps take Ghost-O-Meter’s lead.
Honestly, Google is not the only entity with eyes on your data. There is little preventing Apple from monitoring your digital stream. Service provider’s like Comcast are surely tempted to tap into the data that flows through their networks. Most of us use free wi-fi with no reason to trust the data we pass through their portals. These are scary times for those of us who protect our privacy.
Whether you are scared of ghosts or not, I hope my story has frightened you at least a little bit. As users we need to demand that our software respects our privacy. I believe that Ghost-O-Meter is a better app now that analytics has been removed. I hope my confession is the first step to regaining your trust and making Ghost-O-Meter worthy of the popularity it has earned.
As of this writing, an analytics-free version of Ghost-O-Meter is still waiting for approval from Apple but it should be available at any moment. In the meantime, download and use the current version of Ghost-O-Meter at your own risk.
*I use the word “observing” figuratively. Don’t misinterpret this to mean that your device’s camera is recoding photos or video of you. I am 90% sure that Central Brain can’t access your camera. Geez, I hope not.