Upcoming versions of the Ubuntu desktop Linux operating system will collect certain data about the PCs they’re installed on and the way they’re used. The desktop team at Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, says it wants to focus development on the parts of the experience that people care about.
Does this matter? This is an issue where the general response among users ranges from ambivalence to moral indignation. Let’s break down why this is, and is not, that big a deal.
What Data Will Ubuntu Collect?
In a message to the Ubuntu developer mailing list, Ubuntu desktop team director Will Cooke said the information gathered will include the following:
- Ubuntu flavor
- Ubuntu version
- Network connectivity or not
- CPU family
- Disk(s) size
- Screen(s) resolution
- GPU vendor and model
- OEM Manufacturer
- Location (based on the location selection made by the user at
install). No IP information would be gathered
- Installation duration (time taken)
- Auto login enabled or not
- Disk layout selected
- Third party software selected or not
- Download updates during install or not
- LivePatch enabled or not
Ubuntu would also install Popularity Contest (popcon), a background tool that monitors which packages you install on your computer. This way the team can see what software people care most about. Apport, a separate tool, will automatically send reports when applications crash.
This will be Ubuntu’s default behavior. You will have the option to opt out during the installation process and via system settings.
Gathering PC Statistics Is Common Practice
At least among commercial operating systems, this behavior isn’t unusual. Microsoft and Apple both collect this type of data and more. Such information gathering is also part of what separates Google Chrome from its open source foundation, Chromium.
Companies typically provide the kind of rationale that Will Cooke, speaking on behalf of Canonical, has provided. And it’s true, this type of information can be used to improve the software experience.
That’s not the part that makes some people uncomfortable. Take a look at the poll from The Register’s coverage of the change.
This Practice Isn’t Common on Linux
Linux distributions, of which Ubuntu is but one of many, typically don’t collect information about users. This is part of the reason why it’s difficult to provide estimates of how many people use Linux or any particular version of it. People are welcome to download Linux as often as they want, as many times as they want.
It’s worth stating explicitly that while Ubuntu will soon start collecting PC statistics, most other Linux distributions will not. People bothered by Ubuntu’s decision can choose to switch to a different version of Linux entirely if merely opting out doesn’t feel like enough.
On the other hand, Ubuntu says it will make the data it collects public. That’s a twist that may change how you view the situation.
What’s the Big Deal?
There are several dominant reasons why some view this change as troublesome. Here are a few.
1. Privacy Concerns
People collect data to learn more about something, or someone, than they knew before. If information about you is being assembled, that means something that was known only to you is now known to someone else (though Canonical says the data it will collect will be anonymous).
However innocuous, that leaves some of us feeling squeamish. Avoiding that kind of intrusion is part of what motivates some people to use Linux in the first place.
Once data is collected, it has to be managed responsibly. If it isn’t transferred securely, stored safely, or promptly deleted, that creates many opportunities for that information to be abused.
2. A Lack of Trust
Let’s say Canonical does a good job protecting the information or no one takes enough interest to attempt an intrusion, so the data is safe. There’s still concern over what Canonical has in mind for what it has collected.
I don’t mean to make this sound nefarious. The Ubuntu desktop team likely will use the information to do precisely what it says it will. But it could do more. We can only trust that they won’t.
After Canonical spent years collecting searches typed into the Unity dash in order to deliver relevant search results from Amazon, a vocal number of Ubuntu users don’t trust what the company considers to be a responsible way to collect and use user data.
3. Why Not Opt-In?
This is difficult question for software designers. If you make certain behaviors opt-out—as in people have to consciously tell a program to stop doing what it’s doing—then you collect a lot more data. However, you run the risk of leaving users feeling uncomfortable and distrustful.
On the other hand, making that behavior opt-in keeps you on people’s good side, but you may not collect enough data to learn what you actually want to learn.
This issue doesn’t only apply to software. Whether we’re talking about education, government, or workplace policies, people generally like having the option to opt-in.
4. Does Canonical Even Need This Information?
Ubuntu has been around since 2004. Other Linux distributions have been around for longer. Desktop Linux has come a long way since then. The experience is more polished and stable without having to collect this kind of information about users. So why now?
Software developers often have the temptation to collect more data than they need simply because it’s easy to do. Physical books don’t report back to publishers how long readers dwell on each page or the amount of time it took them to finish this book, but ebook reading software does. Many of us would find the idea of the former to be an outrageous violation of privacy but the latter somehow acceptable. Why?
5. Ubuntu Is Popular
Ubuntu is the most widely-used version of desktop Linux. While many distributions have thousands of users, Ubuntu has millions. Many of those people will likely leave this featured enabled.
So while Ubuntu’s decision may be an anomaly among Linux distributions, it will still impact a sizable proportion of the Linux community.
How Do You Feel About This Change?
As I said before, Canonical isn’t doing something here that’s out of the ordinary for the broader tech industry. Compared to the what Apple, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and other companies do with data, do we really have reason to suspect Canonical?
At the end of the day, whether you uncheck the box during installation or not, your response might be one giant shrug. On the other hand, you might already be contemplating switching to a new Linux distro.
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