Opinion and Return on Technology and Technology

ALTOM: What matters most, privacy or convenience?

April 7, 2012

Every time I see somebody with a smartphone tapping away, I think back on a recent story in the UK’s Sunday Times (www.thesundaytimes.co.uk) that all but accused popular services like Twitter and Facebook of reading tweets and messages.

Smartphones, as you probably know, run “apps” that do various worthwhile things, but the Sunday Times claims that they can also do invasive things like find out who you’re calling, access your phone’s camera without your knowledge, intercept text messages, and record where you are.

Some apps undoubtedly do some of these things, because that’s what they’re supposed to do. According to the Sunday Times, both the iOS and Android operating systems have similar “holes” in them. But is grabbing your personal information thievery or good design?

There’s no question that some apps have secretly lifted data from smartphones. It was recently discovered that Path, a popular app for the iPhone that allowed you to share your daily activities with selected others, also was uploading entire address books from unaware iPhone users.

Before you launch into indignant sputtering about Path, consider that it was doing exactly what it was built to do, and its main sin was in not informing the users. It was, in fact, using the information to discover when those in the user’s address book also downloaded and logged onto Path. It was a feature, in other words, and not a bug. Users were happy about the convenience that Path offered connecting with friends, but unhappy about how Path accomplished it. Path’s downloads plummeted after the news got out.

In the aftermath of the Path revelation, Twitter was found to be doing something similar. Twitters users could quickly find other users by having Twitter look at the contact list in a smartphone and compare them to contacts from other smartphones. What Twitter didn’t make clear was that it might hold onto those contacts for up to 18 months. Twitter has since acknowledged its error and vowed to make the retention period explicit in its next release.

Why is that retention important? One reason is the old concern that Twitter might surreptitiously sell that contact information to a third party that in turn wants to sell you everything from soap to political candidates. The phone contacts by themselves won’t give a marketer much advantage, but added to data about your other devices and habits, it can make you a prime contender for “microtargeting.”

But another reason has recently ridden into town: government data gathering. Twitter, like all such companies, has been asked multiple times to release data on particular individuals. The content of the tweets isn’t generally as important as where tweets come from and go, so-called “traffic analysis.” Google has been at the center of these requests, too, except they were requests for search data.

A lot of users are nervous about what the government might do with all that information, given how tangle-footed the TSA and other agencies have been.

As our devices become more aware of our travels, our preferences, our contacts, our messages, our photographs and even our dexterity, the line between convenience and spying is crossed without us even being aware of it. If we want our gadgets to keep track of our lives and share the details with others, we inevitably make spying possible. In effect, they’re the same activity used for different purposes.

Are our devices becoming too intrusive and powerful? People like Andrew Keen think so (www.ajkeen.com). And perhaps they’re right. But I believe that nothing comes without a price tag, and the only decisions we make are whether to exchange one thing for another. I want the mobility that a car gives me, and I’m willing to accept the many costs it imposes on me, from gas prices to the obligation to watch for pedestrians while driving. If we want to have our phones find our friends for us, locate us on maps, and make calls that can be tracked, we have to give up a lot of privacy. We can’t have both.

We’re not the first generation to face these dilemmas. The telephone, the camera, and store loyalty cards all give others the ability to both spy on us and empower us. Each has required the surrender of some degree of privacy.

It’s possible to opt out of all of them, of course, but the price for that is high as well. Living life without a telephone hardly bears thinking about.

The question isn’t whether the prices we pay are too big, but whether they’re worth the candle. For myself, I don’t buy the “technology Frankenstein” argument that Andrew Keen makes. It’s just a trade-off, and I’m OK with that.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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