Telemetry Is Not Your Enemy

Not all data collection is the same, and not all of it is bad.

Part 1: A Tale of Two Metaphors

In software development “telemetry” is data collected from users of the software, almost always delivered to the authors of the software via the Internet.

In recent years, there has been a great deal of angry public discourse about telemetry. In particular, there is a lot of concern that every software vendor and network service operator collecting any data at all is spying on its users, surveilling every aspect of our lives. The media narrative has been that any tech company collecting data for any purpose is acting creepy as hell.

I am quite sympathetic to this view. In general, some concern about privacy is warranted whenever some new data-collection scheme is proposed. However it seems to me that the default response is no longer “concern and skepticism”; but rather “panic and fury”. All telemetry is seen as snooping and all snooping is seen as evil.

There’s a sense in which software telemetry is like surveillance. However, it is only like surveillance. Surveillance is a metaphor, not a description. It is far from a perfect metaphor.

In the discourse around user privacy, I feel like we have lost a lot of nuance about the specific details of telemetry when some people dismiss all telemetry as snooping, spying, or surveillance.

Here are some ways in which software telemetry is not like “snooping”:

  1. The data may be aggregated. The people consuming the results of telemetry are rarely looking at individual records, and individual records may not even exist in some cases. There are tools, like Prio, to do this aggregation to be as privacy-sensitive as possible.
  2. The data is rarely looked at by human beings. In the cases (such as ad-targeting) where the data is highly individuated, both the input (your activity) and the output (your recommendations) are both mainly consumed by you, in your experience of a product, by way of algorithms acting upon the data, not by an employee of the company you’re interacting with.1
  3. The data is highly specific. “Here’s a record with your account ID and the number of times you clicked the Add To Cart button without checking out” is not remotely the same class of information as “Here’s several hours of video and audio, attached to your full name, recorded without your knowledge or consent”. Emotional appeals calling any data “surveillance” tend to suggest that all collected data is the latter, where in reality most of it is much closer to the former.

There are other metaphors which can be used to understand software telemetry. For example, there is also a sense in which it is like voting.

I emphasize that voting is also a metaphor here, not a description. I will also freely admit that it is in many ways a worse metaphor for telemetry than “surveillance”. But it can illuminate other aspects of telemetry, the ones that the surveillance metaphor leaves out.

Data-collection is like voting because the data can represent your interests to a party that has some power over you. Your software vendor has the power to change your software, and you probably don’t, either because you don’t have access to the source code. Even if it’s open source, you almost certainly don’t have the resources to take over its maintenance.

For example, let’s consider this paragraph from some Microsoft documentation about telemetry:

We also use the insights to drive improvements and intelligence into some of our management and monitoring solutions. This improvement helps customers diagnose quality issues and save money by making fewer support calls to Microsoft.

“Examples of how Microsoft uses the telemetry data” from the Azure SDK documentation

What Microsoft is saying here is that they’re collecting the data for your own benefit. They’re not attempting to justify it on the basis that defenders of law-enforcement wiretap schemes might. Those who want literal mass surveillance tend to justify it by conceding that it might hurt individuals a little bit to be spied upon, but if we spy on everyone surely we can find the bad people and stop them from doing bad things. That’s best for society.

But Microsoft isn’t saying that.2 What Microsoft is saying here is that if you’re experiencing a problem, they want to know about it so they can fix it and make the experience better for you.

I think that is at least partially true.

Part 2: I Qualify My Claims Extensively So You Jackals Don’t Lose Your Damn Minds On The Orange Website

I was inspired to write this post due to the recent discussions in the Go community about how to collect telemetry which provoked a lot of vitriol from people viscerally reacting to any telemetry as invasive surveillance. I will therefore heavily qualify what I’ve said above to try to address some of that emotional reaction in advance.

I am not suggesting that we must take Microsoft (or indeed, the Golang team) fully at their word here. Trillion dollar corporations will always deserve skepticism. I will concede in advance that it’s possible the data is put to other uses as well, possibly to maximize profits at the expense of users. But it seems reasonable to assume that this is at least partially true; it’s not like Microsoft wants Azure to be bad.

I can speak from personal experience. I’ve been in professional conversations around telemetry. When I have, my and my teams’ motivations were overwhelmingly focused on straightforwardly making the user experience good. We wanted it to be good so that they would like our products and buy more of them.

It’s hard enough to do that without nefarious ulterior motives. Most of the people who develop your software just don’t have the resources it takes to be evil about this.

Part 3: They Can’t Help You If They Can’t See You

With those qualifications out of the way, I will proceed with these axioms:

  1. The developers of software will make changes to it.
  2. These changes will benefit some users.
  3. Which changes the developers select will be derived, at least in part, from the information that they have.
  4. At least part of the information that the developers have is derived from the telemetry they collect.

If we can agree that those axioms are reasonable, then let us imagine two user populations:

  • Population A is privacy-sensitive and therefore sees telemetry as bad, and opts out of everything they possibly can.
  • Population B doesn’t care about privacy, and therefore ignores any telemetry and blithely clicks through any opt-in.

When the developer goes to make changes, they will have more information about Population B. Even if they’re vaguely aware that some users are opting out (or refusing to opt in), the developer will know far less about Population A. This means that any changes the developer makes will not serve the needs of their privacy-conscious users, which means fewer features that respect privacy as time goes on.

Part 4: Free as in Fact-Free Guesses

In the world of open source software, this problem is even worse. We often have fewer resources with which to collect and analyze telemetry in the first place, and when we do attempt to collect it, a vocal minority among those users are openly hostile, with feedback that borders on harassment. So we often have no telemetry at all, and are making changes based on guesses.

Meanwhile, in proprietary software, the user population is far larger and less engaged. Developers are not exposed directly to users and therefore cannot be harassed or intimidated into dropping their telemetry. Which means that proprietary software gains a huge advantage: they can know what most of their users want, make changes to accommodate it, and can therefore make a product better than the one based on uninformed guesses from the open source competition.

Proprietary software generally starts out with a panoply of advantages already — most of which boil down to “money” — but our collective knee-jerk reaction to any attempt to collect telemetry is a massive and continuing own-goal on the part of the FLOSS community. There’s no inherent reason why free software’s design cannot be based on good data, but our community’s history and self-selection biases make us less willing to consider it.

That does not mean we need to accept invasive data collection that is more like surveillance. We do not need to allow for stockpiled personally-identifiable information about individual users that lives forever. The abuses of indiscriminate tech data collection are real, and I am not suggesting that we forget about them.

The process for collecting telemetry must be open and transparent, the data collected needs to be continuously vetted for safety. Clear data-retention policies should always be in place to avoid future unanticipated misuses of data that is thought to be safe today but may be de-anonymized or otherwise abused in the future.

I want the collaborative feedback process of open source development to result in this kind of telemetry: thoughtful, respectful of user privacy, and designed with the principle of least privilege in mind. If we have this kind of process, then we could hold it up as an example for proprietary developers to follow, and possibly improve the industry at large.

But in order to be able to produce that example, we must produce criticism of telemetry efforts that is specific, grounded in actual risks and harms to users, rather than a series of emotional appeals to slippery-slope arguments that do not correspond to the actual data being collected. We must arrive at a consensus that there are benefits to users in allowing software engineers to have enough information to do their jobs, and telemetry is not uniformly bad. We cannot allow a few users who are complaining to stop these efforts for everyone.

After all, when those proprietary developers look at the hard data that they have about what their users want and need, it’s clear that those who are complaining don’t even exist.

  1. Please note that I’m not saying that this automatically makes such collection ethical. Attempting to modify user behavior or conduct un-reviewed psychological experiments on your customers is also wrong. But it’s wrong in a way that is somewhat different than simply spying on them. 

  2. I am not suggesting that data collected for the purposes of improving the users’ experience could not be used against their interest, whether by law enforcement or by cybercriminals or by Microsoft itself. Only that that’s not what the goal is here.