The Smartphone – A Nexus for Personal Privacy (#2)

Privacy & Smartphones #2

Relying on the government to protect your privacy is like asking a peeping tom to install your window blinds.   

-John Perry Barlow 

(cofounder, Electronic Freedom Foundation)

We could say that because the smartphone has become so central to our daily lives that it is also at the heart of personal privacy. And as even more compelling and pervasive services and tools are developed on smartphones and continue simplify and augment our daily lives so will more and more of our personal and private life become entangled with these devices.

It seems impossible to avoid this conclusion.

On the positive side the larger corporations appear to have realized that the majority of consumers do still value their privacy. Users are now offered tools and controls to manage and adjust their ‘privacy’ settings. These developments are driven partly by legislation, partly by an increasing user awareness of privacy, but also to a large degree by self-interest.

Large corporations are well aware of the value of keeping their customers ‘close’ and if customers want privacy and security then they will deliver on these promises.

Secure Channels …

The companies that do the best job on managing a user’s privacy will be the companies that ultimately are the most successful.

-Fred Wilson

(Venture Capitalist and Co-Founder of Union Square Ventures, July 2015)

The same corporatons have also begun to take point-to-point security seriously and many core services now offer two-factor authentication. Not surprisingly your smartphone is the second factor and a text message with a numeric code is the typical means to confirm your identity. And once logged onto their service all communication and data transfers are protected by state-of-art point-to-point encryption.

This approach has begun to lead to tensions between the larger tech corporations and government agencies. As I am writing, there is an ongoing legal battle between the US Dept of Justice and a certain corproation from Cupertino who refuses to assist in ‘cracking’ one of their devices. The CEO is taking this stand even though the device was used by a terrorist who caused the deaths of a significant number of US citizens. And quite a few other large tech corporations agree and have filed an amicus brief in support.

This is a scenario that would have been unthinkable a couple of decades ago; even 10 years ago it would have been unlikely that a corporation would stand up to such a government request and puts its customers and their rights before US national security. And even less likely that a cluster of equally large corporations would stand behind it.

To Protect your Privacy … ?

When it comes to privacy and accountability, people always demand the former for themselves and the latter for everyone else.

– David Brin

(Science Fiction Writer and Author of The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? (1998) ISBN 0-7382-0144-8

But from a corporation’s perspective privacy is primarily a shield between their customers and other 3rd parties. They are happy to protect the curstomer’s privacy, but the philosophy is to shield it against incursion by other competitors. Often, in return for this security blanket you have to sign away certain rights and ownership of your valuable personal data.

Because what corporations really want is to learn about our habits and behaviours. By knowing more about us as individuals, by identifying our patterns of behaviour and consumption, by learning about our individual likes and dislikes they can build and offer even more compelling products and services.

It is the aggregate data of many, many users that reveals trends and patterns that can lead to new insights and confer subtle business advantage to those who curate your personal life.

Naturally it is all presented as a series of choices for us to make as individuals, but often the trade-off will be too good to refuse. The danger, over time, is a gradual but persistent erosion of personal privacy. But perhaps more importantly this trend is leading to a concentration of personal data with our smartphones as the nexus point.

And, I’ve made this point on many occasions in the past – the data from a single person isn’t very valuable on its own, but when this is repeated across hundreds of millions, even billions of users then it becomes a very attractive target.

Today the smartphone is the emerging battlefield for personal privacy. It is not the only front on which our privacy is challenged, but it is undoubtedly the most important one. And while today we see large corporations stand up against the government and insist on the integrity of their security protocols it is clear that things could change quicky driven through legislative changes, or indeed new disruptive technologies.




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