Recently, Canonical announced it is planning to collect usage data. The announcement led to some controversy with people arguing that by tracking data, Canonical would act exactly the same as closed-source companies like Microsoft. But is that true? After all, there is also a very large group of people who seem to be fine with Ubuntu collecting data.
At Kopano, we understand Canonicals’ decision. After all, for – medium and large-sized – FLOSS companies these kind of data are essential for improving products, determining development priorities, and detecting bugs at an early stage.
As a matter of fact, we are also looking for ways to learn more about our how our users use our systems. The Kopano Dashboard, for example, was meant to provide key metrics that indicate the health and performance of your system. The idea was that system administrators and partners could use this information to get a better grip on performance improvement opportunities. The Dashboard in its current form though is not going to be developed any further because of some technical challenges.
What is going to happen at some point, is that we will, most likely, start collecting anonymous usage data, just like Canonical. What kind of data would we like to collect? Think about the following.
- Clients – Currently we have no idea how many people use our clients so we don’t know how much we should focus on each of them.
- Features – We’d also love to know how many people are using features like notes, tasks, or the Kopano calendar.
This kind of information is important to track because it helps us improve our software for our users. The same can be said for Canonical. And Microsoft. And Google. Everyone tracks data.
Then why do many of us think it’s perfectly ok if Canonical collects data but are upset when Microsoft and Google do so?
1. Open Source is Free and Accessible
First and foremost, Ubuntu is open source. So if Canonical collects Ubuntu data, everybody can benefit from it. Microsoft, Google, Facebook and others are not in the business of free knowledge sharing but build their business models on the data they collect. This alone should be reason enough to be at least sceptical about closed-source software companies collecting user data.
2. Trust versus Transparency
One other very important argument that distinguishes Canonical from Microsoft is that Ubuntu allows you to see exactly which data is collected and which is not. Microsoft does provide a list with a description of the data they’re collecting, but you have to trust them on their word. There’s no way you can see the actual data, as can also be read in an excerpt taken from a recent Heise article about Microsoft security issues.
The article states:
“Martin Meints, who is responsible for the security of the systems used at Dataport, explained to c’t that under Windows 10 some encrypted data records are still transmitted to Microsoft despite the fact that online services are completely disconnected. Microsoft has not yet explained to Dataport which data is transmitted exactly. Instead, the company warned Meints that if the data transfer was cut, the system would no longer be stable.”
3. You Are In Control: Easy Opt-Out from Data Collection
Last but not least, with Microsoft, Google and Facebook (for example) there is no easy way to opt-out of data collection. Even limiting the amount of data collected, can have serious consequences. In case of Microsoft, the systems you use, for example, could lose their stability if you’d decide to put a hold on data transfer.
Ubuntu, on the other hand, will probably provide the opportunity to opt-out of all data collection activities before any data is collected and without consequences for your systems (something Kopano would most likely do as well). Although of course not implemented yet, Ubuntu plans to make this opting-out easy for users by including some kind of opt-out checkbox in the installation process.
Bottom line is that nowadays your data are your most important assets so it is vital that you are always at least a little bit sceptical and ask critical questions when it comes to data collection. As for software companies like ourselves who plan to collect usage data, we need to make sure to always be:
- transparent and clear about what happens with your user’s data
- kind enough to let everyone benefit from the data you collect.
What is your opinion on usage data collection? What is acceptable and what is not? Share your thoughts in the comments!