Sunday Slant: ACLU says cellphone updates a civil liberty

Should the government investigate wireless carriers for failing to provide security updates to your smartphone? The ACLU says yes! Photo:

TEXAS, April 21, 2013—On April 16th the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a 16 page complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asking the agency to investigate AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile for failing to warn their customers about unpatched security flaws in the software running versions of Google’s Android operating system on their smartphones.

Are smartphone updates really a civil liberty?

According to the complaint, the majority of the phones running the Android OS never receive critical software security updates, which exposes consumers and their private data to significant security-related risks. By failing to warn their customers about known, unpatched security flaws in the mobile devices they sell, the ACLU argues, that wireless carriers have engaged in “unfair and deceptive business practices”, because consumers running these devices have “no legitimate software upgrade path”.

In an April 17th article posted on the ACLU site, Chris Soqhoian, Principal Technologist and Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project wrote,” The problem isn’t that consumers aren’t installing updates, but rather, that updates simply aren’t available. Although Google’s engineers regularly fix software flaws in the Android operating system, these fixes aren’t packaged up and pushed to consumers by the wireless carriers and their handset manufacturer partners.”

Ok, let’s say that it’s all true. Consumers are enticed to buy smartphones that come with the latest and greatest Android OS only to find later that if they want the next new latest and greatest Android OS, they have to buy a new phone. Then, to add insult to injury, their old operating system stops receiving updates. Are the major carriers conducting an unfair business practice? Many would say yes. But whether what they’re doing is an affront to their customer’s civil liberties might beg the question.  

Civil Liberties are basic rights and freedoms that are guaranteed, and identified in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, or interpreted by the courts through case law. They include: freedom of speech, the right to privacy, freedom from unreasonable searches, the right to a fair trial, the right to marry, and the right to vote.

The ACLU’s argument seems to be based on the right to privacy.

According to Chris Soqhoian, “as consumers increasingly store vast amounts of private, sensitive data on their smartphones, the ACLU is fighting to make sure that data stays safe. Although our most high-profile advocacy and litigation in this area relates to the threat of warrantless searches of data stored on mobile devices, the US government is by no means the only threat to mobile privacy. Identity thieves, stalkers and foreign state actors also pose a threat to consumers and their data.”

While it is true that carrier insistence on modifying the Android OS to their own design has created a fragmentation that has made updating older versions of the Android operating system difficult to manage, and that consumers have been the clear losers because of it, I’m not so sure that prosecuting mobile carriers for violating their customers civil liberties is a road we want to travel.

Well, that’s my slant, hit me up in the comments and tell me yours. 


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Derek Crockett

Derek Crockett is a retired Engineering Technician with a love for technology, and industry experience ranging from the production of printed wire boards to the manufacture of semi-conductor production tools. Derek is a resident of Copperas Cove, Texas, and has worked for many of the world’s leading technology companies such as Solectron, Samsung, AMD, and Applied Materials. He now writes technology related news articles and reviews at


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