The Age of the Smartphone (#1)

Privacy & Smartphones #1

This is the first of a set of 3 short articles looking at the role of smartphones in personal privacy. These blogs are modified from my main editorial in the July 2016 issue IEEE Consumer Electronics Magazine.

As editor of the IEEE Consumer Electronics Magazine for the past 5 years I get to see and review quite a few topical and contemporary articles on various aspects of consumer electronic devices. In the last 2-3 years there is a growing stream of articles with a focus on the security of personal data and communications, and on more broadly scoped topics such as privacy, trust and variatious forms of ‘veillance’.

There is no doubt that we live in an age of persistent connectedness and are increasingly empowered as individuals to generate large volumes of digital data. This can range from simple text messages and e-mails, to photographs, videos clips and a broad range of metadata ranging from our location throughout the day to the web pages we browse, the online stores we visit, the travel arrangements we make, the financial transactions we initiate and the social networks we participate in.

Getting Intimate …

Increasingly our smartphone is the go-to portal for much of these activities. It has become our portal to the Internet and the hub of an increasingly connected digital lifestyle. And all the data passing through this portal has become the key to commercial success for many of today’s larger corporations. Handling and managing that data gives them direct and often near-exclusive access to you, the consumer.

It is an intimate one-on-one relationship that corporations have longed for but could not achieve in the past. Television was the first generation of electronic technology that allowed them to reach out to consumers. It was better than newspapers as the visual impact enabled a stronger level of intimacy, but still the relationship was with demographic groups rather than individuals.

Then the personal computer arrived, but it wasn’t possible to get a foothold on these devices which were too ‘serious’ for people to use for leisure activities. But the World-Wide-Web started to change all that, providing a more visual and interactive mechanism to link computer users to networked information and services. And as the Web evolved it became more visual and more interactive reaching the point were it has started to displace traditional TV.

Augmented Lifestyles …

Still, a computer is fixed to a desktop so you have to sit down and dedicate some time to spend with it. And typically it sits on a desk in a home office rather than in your living room. The real breakthrough could only start with the arrival of the smartphone.

Smartphones are used for a continuously expanding array of applications, from Internet browsing to e-mailing, to gaming, to banking, to shopping, and managing travel arrangements – airfares, car rental, etc.. In combination with new network services they are replacing traditional taxi services, short-let accommodation and even your local gym with more flexible and available ‘network sourced’ alternatives. And for many of us they have become the primary tool to record and document our personal lives in pictures and video – a connected gateway that you carry with you all day long. .

The ‘smarter’ and more capable these devices become, the more they infiltrate our daily activities and blend themselves into our personal lives.

The ability of a smart-phone to augment our daily lives has already effected substantial changes in social behavior and enhanced our lives in many ways. It enables us to make better use of slack-time during the daily commute or while waiting at the airport or for everyone to arrive and settle before a meeting. And it provides a portable gateway to growing range of networked services and technologies from shopping to making travel arrangmenets, to managing our growing collections of personal images & videos.

Very few of us could envisage a life without our phone, yet these devices are still less than a decade old!

Like it or not we have entered the age of the smartphone.

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