Lenovo preinstalled malware called Superfish on the PCs they sold to inject advertisements into what their computer users see. In the process they open up security holes that can lead to further compromises. Now that the issue has been exposed, they’ve agreed to no longer install the software, and disable it on existing PCs.
Lenovo had come under fire from security researchers who said earlier on Thursday the company pre-installed a virus-like software from a company called Superfish on consumer laptops that hijacked web connections and allowed them to be spied upon.
Users reported as early as last June that a programme, also called Superfish, was ‘adware’, or software that automatically displays adverts.
I’m starting to view these incidents as a violation of people’s agency. From wikipedia: “In the social sciences, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.”
When a manufacturer installs malware that is undetectable (and in some cases, unremovable), they are limiting the ability of people to make their own choices. The vast majority of informed people would choose to (a) avoid seeing ads they don’t want, (b) avoid having their data spied on, (c) avoid having the security of their computer compromised, (d) avoid malware that will use up extra resources on their computer, etc.
Both the act of installing the software as well as the act of withholding information function to reduce agency. And it’s not just Lenovo. It’s Samsung with their Smart TVs, and Facebook with their defacto ownership of your data. (Try getting out of a relationship with Facebook with your data intact.) It’s employer spyware, and it’s school spyware.
School spyware is among the most concerning, because it’s training our kids to find it acceptable and normal to be spied upon by those in power. The child who grows up spied upon for ten years by his teachers and schools will not object when their employer or government wants to monitor their computer activity.
I think I’ve learned more about the concept of agency from science fiction convention panels on women in media than anywhere else, so my understanding of this concept may be imperfect. But issues of agency seems like they are mostly related to power imbalances. Where a power imbalance exists, the more powerful party limits agency of the less powerful party. The great the power imbalance, the more this happens, and the more unaware the powerful party is of the effects that it has on their victims.