Ubuntu Spyware – Is It True?

Back in December 2012, Richard Stallman (RMS) famously wrote a blog post on the Free Software Foundations site titled Ubuntu Spyware: What to do?

This “Ubuntu Spyware” that RMS talks about within the article is of course the Unity Amazon Lens. Just in case any of you have been living under a rock for the last few months, the Amazon Lens introduced in Ubuntu 12.10 basically sends your local searches to Canonical (the company that makes Ubuntu), which are in turn relayed to Amazon so that online Amazon search results will be displayed on your machine when you search for anything within Unity.

I must stress at this point that this information is sent securely and Canonical say that only your search terms are sent to Amazon and they do not know who searched for what; but Canonical clearly do. This feature can also be turned off extremely easily from the system settings within Ubuntu under Privacy (as shown below).

ubuntu-privacy-settings

Within the article RMS is pretty rough on the decision by Canonical to include “Spyware” within Ubuntu 12.10+. RMS makes his feelings on the matter crystal clear and pleads with readers to not only stop using Ubuntu, but also not recommend it to other prospective users:

Ubuntu, a widely used and influential GNU/Linux distribution, has installed surveillance code. When the user searches her own local files for a string using the Ubuntu desktop, Ubuntu sends that string to one of Canonical’s servers. (Canonical is the company that develops Ubuntu.)

If you ever recommend or redistribute GNU/Linux, please remove Ubuntu from the distros you recommend or redistribute. If its practice of installing and recommending nonfree software didn’t convince you to stop, let this convince you. In your install fests, in your Software Freedom Day events, in your FLISOL events, don’t install or recommend Ubuntu. Instead, tell people that Ubuntu is shunned for spying.

But is this actually spyware?

Well, technically the Amazon Lens within Ubuntu is spyware. Here is the dictionary definition of spyware:

Software that self-installs on a computer, enabling information to be gathered covertly about a person’s Internet use, passwords, etc.

The Amazon Lens is installed by default during the OS install and it does obviously gather information covertly and pass this on to a third party. So in all honesty Ubuntu does contain spyware by default. But does that mean Ubuntu is dangerous and shouldn’t be used?

Well, in my humble opinion I certainly don’t think Ubuntu is dangerous, and a more valid question to ask yourselves might be “Should I trust Ubuntu/Canonical?”. I personally couldn’t care less who Canonical send my search terms too as it’s only going to be file and application names. However, I can completely empathise with anyone who feels really let down by Canonical and Ubuntu.

So why Amazon?

When the announcement was first made by Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth, he justifies the inclusion of the Amazon Lens in Ubuntu 12.10 with the following statement:

It makes perfect sense to integrate Amazon search results in the Dash, because the Home Lens of the Dash should let you find *anything* anywhere. Over time, we’ll make the Dash smarter and smarter, so you can just ask for whatever you want, and it will Just Work.

For me this statement begs the question “Why Amazon?“. You see, if the vision really is to allow users to “find *anything* anywhere” then surely the perfect first Lens to provide these kind of online search results would have been a search engine? I would personally really dig having Google results within the Unity Dash when I search for something – but on an on-demand basis only. I wouldn’t like having the result with every single search I run.

My personal opinion is that the Amazon Unity Lens or “Ubnutu spyware” as RMS calls it is more about making money than adding an awesome new feature for us users. You see, if you purchase something from Amazon off the back of a Unity search within Ubuntu, Canonical get a small commission for that. I personally think that’s awesome as it’s a quick and easy way for many users of Ubuntu to support the project financially.

However, if money was the driver behind adding this feature (and I must stress that this is my personal opinion only) then I would have had much more respect if Mark Shuttleworth had of said this rather than dressing it up as a great new features for users.

Should I be worried about this “Ubuntu spyware“?

Ultimately that’s your call to make really. As I said above, I’m personally not that bothered about the inclusion of the Amazon search results within Ubuntu as nothing I search for is really secret or private. But I do switch it off and forget about it as I find the results extremely annoying; if I want to search Amazon then I’ll go and search Amazon. I don’t really want the results to be forced down my throat (which they’re not if you turn them off).

As I’ve touched on above. I personally think that the justifications for the inclusion of this “Ubuntu spyware” aren’t 100% honest and this has made me lose some of the respect I have for Canonical/Ubuntu so I am beginning to think if it’s now time to move away from Ubuntu and too another Linux distribution as this isn’t in keeping with the mantra of FOSS (Free & Open Source Software). I love Ubuntu, it works well for me and compliments my workflow well. However, if Canonical do start putting prospected profits before their users needs or wants then I feel it’s time to move on.

What do you guys think? Is this “Ubuntu spyware?” a positive inclusion or a negative one? I’m really interested to hear other community members thoughts on this and if any of you guys have moved away from Ubuntu for this reason (or any other)? Leave your feedback in the comments section below…

Ubuntu Spyware – Is It True?
User Rating: 3 (16 votes)
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  • Josh

    It is a form of spyware, data is captured about a users activitys and used for purposes not related to the users intended actions, the by-product is a profit for a third party, if this is not spy ware I dont know what is.
    I am still using ubuntu but have not upgraded to the “spyware & marketing enabled version” I will try the newer version when the time comes, so long as I can turn it off I will likely continue to use ubuntu, but if the day ever comes when I cant, ubuntu will be terminated…

    • http://www.rapidrage.org/ FihuFil

      so now also:
      (if you have)
      delete your facebook, google, microsoft account.
      throw out your android/windows phone.
      Oh and stop using google if you are using it…

      • joeandjoe

        you dont need facebook (what is the point of it anyway?), or micro$oft account, and you definitely dont need google – duckduckgo is a better alternative :), and on your android phone you can use cyanogenmod and you are better than before :)

      • http://www.rapidrage.org/ FihuFil

        I have Ubuntu on my computers and Ubuntu Phone, no need for Google or M$ synchronization at any point. :)

  • phylwx

    Next release they can nickname “Sellout Ocelot”. Im not using or recommending Ubuntu anymore.

  • TJB

    Yeah, certainly not spyware (screw the definition, it doesn’t work with post intention anyway). I’m sending my searches to Amazon while I hate them but that’s awesome. Also, someone made that decision for me without me knowing it. That’s awesome too! And they get money for it. Hey, that’s even more awesome. If you can make money on other people’s decision without them knowing it it’s awesome to do that. Why burden them with that knowledge. Thanks Quirk! What’s not to like indeed.

  • Alex

    Pretty disappointing step from Canonical. In my opinion any information harvested from your system should require the explicit consent from the user.

  • Dr Holmes

    I kind of feel that with the big corps, its like you give an inch and they take a mile, they get their preverbial foot in the door and then use this a leverage to force the door wider as they trample roughshod all over our rights. The problem in society with users, is there is too much apathy regarding IT privacy and security and we have been brainwashed into the 1234 password, joke culture. I for one will be turning away from Ubuntu this week end, the unity desktop was the first nail in Ubuntus coffin for me and the blatant comercialism and the fact that Canoniacal is now a ‘sell out’ leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I will also not be able to recommend Ubuntu to people who want a secure and truly free operating system. I do not want to support Amazon and their business model so I will refrain from using an operating system part owned by them. Oh but yes ther is a button to tunn this off right, oh yes but I was born yesterday LOL

  • Juan Medina

    If you dont like it remove it! thats it
    sudo apt-get remove unity-lens-shopping

    • misdirection

      Will that completely remove Ubuntu ability to spy and collect data from my search strings?

  • Duncan Johnstone

    I’ve just installed Ubuntu 13.04 and have disabled the dash online search and removed the links to Amazon from my desktop. I like Ubuntu but I certainly don’t like Amazon. Having read through some of the articles about this issue, it seems to me that the survival of GNU/Linux is more important than the survival of Canonical. Open-source software existed before Canonical did and will no doubt continue to exist whether or not the company actually survives. Also the work Canonical have sponsored is likely to survive whether or not the company does. I understand they have yet to make a profit, so maybe they won’t.

    • http://www.refugeeks.com/ Kev Quirk

      I totally agree Duncan, I’ve personally since moved to Elementary OS Luna (link below to my review on another site). It’s really great, and I think stands a good chance of becoming the next unofficial standard for the Linux desktop. Many big names have come and gone over the years, Ubuntu is the biggest of course, but how sustainable is this lack of profit for the company?

      I’d love to see them succeed, but not at the sacrifice of the community. Hopefully they will see sense and start working more closely with the community – I can’t really say. I hope they do though.

  • strypey

    Sad to see the trolls parroting the weak justifications I’ve seen on every discussion about this issue:
    1) “If you don’t like spyware turn it off or uninstall it.” I did that once before, uninstalling the giant spyware called Windows XP and installing GNU/Linux. I did it again when I read Stallman’s piece, uninstalled Ubuntu from and switched to Trisquel, on of the distros endorsed by the FSF (by far the most user-friendly of the ones I’ve tried)
    2) “lots of companies spy on us, and Canonical isn’t the worst, so we should just put up with it.” What a sad, defeatist attiude. If I thought that way, I would have stayed with Windows or bought an Apple.

    • joeandjoe

      exactly what Stallman and others are trying to say, if we let them do that whos gonna stop them.

  • Ervin Dine

    If you listen to everything that Stallman says, you should:
    Use only a GNU approved distro, no Fedora, no Opensuse, no Ubuntu or variants of it, no Elementary OS Luna, no Boddhi, probably you should use gnewsense with openoffice 3.2 and gnome 2.x
    Second no google account, no facebook, microsoft or yahoo, good luck finding your email account.
    Third you should all sells your computers and phones and buy a glulug or a lemote yeelong and install gnewsense in it.
    Also no skype, no flash, even if people want them? Forget about watching youtube. It does not work with the outdated browsers of gnewsense
    People should make their own choices.
    I think Stallman’s approach is maybe good and handy for those who know how to program and work on the code, for most people not very useful.
    Stallman uses the computer only for emails, and browses the internet using wget from the terminal, so as not to be identified. It’s a bit paranoid. He also does not use an electronic card to open the doors at this foundation, that also can identify him. No mobile phone, even simple ones, they are tracking devices.
    As for Ubuntu, I think mostly Ubuntu has a fair approach.
    What is unfair is they are sort of trying to trick users into buying amazon products with this unity lens. This can be turned off, but it should have been turned off by default. I think the way Ubuntu is trying to make money is not effective and not fair.
    However as a company Canonical needs to make money. Rather than partnering with Amazon, it would have been better if they found another way to charge users. But who of you wants to pay?
    As for the spyware thing, yes it might fit the definition, but all it does is record your searches and nothing else, and it is recorced in Canonical’s servers. Don’t tell me google or your search engine does not record your searches? Websites don’t know your IP?
    However I believe this feature shoud be turned off, as it is quite useless to the user. And it should be turned off by default and the unity lens should not be described as a convenient way to search the internet, because it is rather inconvenient too.

    • http://kevquirk.com Kev Quirk

      Thanks for the comment Ervine. I agree that 90% of what RMS spouts is complete and utter rubbish that simply isn’t feasible in the real world.

      Furthermore, I also agree that the Ubuntu Shopping Lens isn’t inheritly bad, I just don’t like the thought of ads being piped straight to my desktop. On a website, yeah, I totally get it. But on my personal machine – absolutely no way.

      You mention Google search terms being stored, as well as IP etc. I’m completely aware of the information that’s stored online, and I’m OK with that. Otherwise I wouldn’t go online. However, what I take issue with on Ubuntu, and the difference here is, it’s storing my private searches for files. From these searches, someone could easily for a pretty broad picture of me as a person, and my information.

      For example, I may have files that are private, and their name is as such. But as soon as I sear H for this file it’s beamed over the Internet – not cool one bit.

      I’m actually back on Windows 7 now, and couldn’t be happier. Still keep my eye on all things Foss though. Real shame, this could be the straw that broke the camels back for Ubuntu.

      • Ervin Dine

        Whatever makes a person happy as long as you don’t do anything illegal and bad with your software you should not worry too much about it. It is just software anyway.

      • Ervin Dine

        You are right. After a second thought, yep Ubuntu should not peak into private searches for files and send you things to shop for. It is not good and it is lame. Use Fedora, if you are into Foss. It works fine on me.

    • joeandjoe

      sorry but for flash for instance should die, its long overdue.

      http://occupyflash.org/

  • joeandjoe

    if we allow linux distributor to deliberately install spyware on our computers, regardless of the intensions, than we are heading towards doom, because ubuntu with their spyware is not what linux stands for, im not the one to say
    but you should listen to mr Stallman
    https://youtu.be/CP8CNp-vksc