Ubuntu to Collect Your PC Data: What This Means for You
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Upcoming versions of the Ubuntu desktop Linux operating system Ubuntu: A Beginner's Guide Ubuntu: A Beginner's Guide Curious about Ubuntu, but not sure where to start? Everything you could possibly need to get started with the latest version of Ubuntu is right here, written in easy-to-understand, plain English. Read More 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
  • RAM
  • 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 Don't Let Windows 10 Spy on You: Manage Your Privacy! Don't Let Windows 10 Spy on You: Manage Your Privacy! Windows 10 is watching you. Microsoft's latest operating system is undoubtedly harvesting more of your personal information than ever before. We'll show you how to get a better grip on your privacy. Read 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 The Best Linux Operating Systems The Best Linux Operating Systems There are Linux distros available for every purpose, which makes choosing one difficult. Here's a list of the very best Linux operating systems to help. Read More , 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 Why Use a Linux Operating System Other Than Ubuntu? Why Use a Linux Operating System Other Than Ubuntu? There are hundreds of Linux operating systems (distributions) but you're probably using Ubuntu. Here's why you might want to switch to one of the Ubuntu alternatives. Read More 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 6 Ways Linux Is More Welcoming Than Windows for Newcomers 6 Ways Linux Is More Welcoming Than Windows for Newcomers If you recently installed Windows 10, you may have experienced a rather cold piece of automation. Contrast this with installing Linux, which is warm and informative - just two of many reasons to choose Linux... Read More . 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 The Best Linux Operating Systems The Best Linux Operating Systems There are Linux distros available for every purpose, which makes choosing one difficult. Here's a list of the very best Linux operating systems to help. Read More .

Image Credit: vchalup2/Depositphotos

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  1. Eddie G.
    March 9, 2018 at 4:41 am

    I have watched Ubuntu go from being the "answer" to the Microsoft Dilemma" ....to becoming more like Microsoft than I like. I have stopped using them since 11.04, and have been taking my "deb" packages either straight no chaser, (by running Debian Linux with the MATE desktop)...or else "diluted" (by using the Linux Mint Debian Edition.) I also run Fedora, and OpenSuSE...which DON'T collect data. Nor do they attach something like Amazon to your distro without your consent. (Yes....I've seen the latest version of Ubuntu running the Gnome desktop...Amazon is STILL there!) So Canonical will lose a large percentage of their users because of this. Its not "treachery" per-se, but it smacks of "os domination" from the looks of it. As I see it....they can backtrack NOW....while they still have a chance, and collect data the same way all the other distros do it....through bug reports, and mailing list comments etc. Or they can persist with what some would call "intrusive measures" and find out the hard way why they shouldn't have done this at all!

  2. jim
    February 21, 2018 at 12:22 pm

    "Canonical is EXPLORING the idea of adding an OPTION to the Ubuntu system installer which would allow the operating system to collect hardware information and send it over a secure connection to Canonical's developer"

    If it is an option I have no problem with it. I prefer opt in to opt out, but both are okay as long as I have a choice. While most Linux OS's are free, and most Internet browsers are free, these people still need money and information to develop their systems and software. Now hidden and forced participation are different, but you can vote on those by moving on. Linux is not Microsoft.

  3. dragonmouth
    February 20, 2018 at 11:11 pm

    "Ubuntu to Collect Your PC Data: What This Means for You "
    Another reason to avoid ever installing any of the *buntu family on any PC.

    "Gathering PC Statistics Is Common Practice"
    At one time so was highway robbery and child labor.

    Ever since Mark Shuttleworth started Canonical and released the first version of Ubuntu, it has been his fervent wish to become the Bill Gates of Linux and to make Canonical into the Microsoft of Linux. Ubuntu is an indivisible monolith just like Windows. Any program installed by default during the initial install process cannot be uninstalled because it uses vital system files as dependencies. Instead of collaborating on developing existing Linux packages, Canonical develops its own versions of applications (Mir, Unity, etc.) just so that they have total control. Linux is supposed to be about choice. With Ubuntu the user has no choice about the packages to install. You install everything or nothing. Sound familiar? Did I hear someone in the back say 'Windows'? Now, just like Microsoft, Canonical will collect data on its users. How long before the "opt-out" gets buried deep in the Settings, to be eventual totally removed?

    Following Shuttleworth/Canonical/Ubuntu lead, Linux is slowly becoming Window-ized.

  4. Gazoo
    February 20, 2018 at 9:38 pm

    Not an Ubuntu user but they are literally collecting enough information to uniquely identify users, ie.. fingerprinting.

    Their point about what programs people install will naturally lead to: how long has this uniquely identified person run program X? This is what establishes what programs people care about.

    I have honestly never seen the positive impacts of data-collection. The companies mentioned (Microsoft, Apple, Google, etal) have always done whatever they have wanted regardless. As businesses, their primary concern is using this data to their competitive advantage - nothing more. It helps fend off competitors, track trends so that they are *first* with a new product, resell data to monetize, etc. It, now, even includes controlling the narrative.

    This is why we have Windows 10 (hybrid OS), Metro Interface (which everyone hated), Laptops with minimal ports, Laptops with barely any storage space, no headphone jacks, notches, non-removable batteries. The list is endless. My point is that data-collection - at no point - indicated that people wanted these things. In fact, it probably indicated that people wanted the *opposite* of these things.

    Ubuntu played their hand too early with the Amazon thing. It backfired. Now they're coming in "sideways". There is no question that after their base becomes (somewhat) accustomed to the data-collection, Ubuntu will add new "telemetry". Then they'll figure out a way to monetize their user's personal lives for their benefit. Firefox is on the same track. The fanboys will continue to delude themselves into believing this is not the case. But... every single company that has entered this arena has betrayed their users. Every. Single. One.