Many programs that you use come along at some point and ask you for permission to send data from your computer back to the company. Usually, they ask you for permission to send usage statistics, crash reports and the like. Many people are nervous about these requests and deny permission right away. This isn’t a good idea, though. Sharing such information makes it easier for software developers to create better software. Here’s a short look at what exactly it is that programs send out.
The kinds of data that get sent out
Crash reports and error logs – You can consider this the computer equivalent of what a flight data recorder records. When a program freezes and then shuts down unexpectedly, your computer tries to patch together the exact circumstances under which the crash occurred – what was in your computer’s RAM, what other programs were running, what kind of computer you have and so on.
Usage statistics – All programs record usage patterns. A browser, for instance, could record information about how many tabs you use, what specific plug-ins you have running, what buttons you use the most and so on.
How exactly is such data useful to the software companies?
Software vendors collect usage statistics to try to see how their users use their programs. If they find that users use the Back button on their browser a great deal, for instance, they could give you a simpler keyboard shortcut for it. If they see that most users have a certain screen resolution, they could tweak their browser to look better at that resolution. Alternatively, they could provide a different user interface – a permanent side panel with all your webpage history, for instance. If they find that there are buttons that you rarely use, they could disable them by default.
Crash reports gives developers important insights into any programming bugs that there may be in their software. When they collect enough crash reports from users, they could find out that crashes mostly happen on certain models of computer or ones with certain other software programs installed. They could then work on finding a way to fix the incompatibility.
Should you send this information out?
Most programs give you the option in the installation stage to disable the collection of such data. They assure you that no personal data gets sent out.
All assurances aside, people get uncomfortable about sending usage statistics and crash reports out because they fear being spied on. The privacy fear isn’t really a valid one then it comes to sending performance and usage statistics. Not only does such data not contain any personal information, it doesn’t carry any way to identify the user it comes from. It is anonymized.
The one exception to the above rule is if your crash occurs on a browser and you happen to be looking at sensitive banking information when the crash occurs. In this case, your crash report could collect a data dump that includes your banking passwords and credit card numbers. This is the only circumstance in which you should stay away from sending out a report. All other times, such sharing only helps developers improve their software.