Smartphone Relationship Status: It's Complicated

It is time for us to have a heart-to-heart with our smartphones. Reevaluating our use of technology will do wonders for the tech industry — and society — as a whole.

By Xische Editorial, July 18, 2018

 Source: Jojje/ Shutterstock

Source: Jojje/Shutterstock

In an age of geo-tracking, passive listening, and apps for everything under the sun, our data is the new currency. Despite the steady deluge of data breaches and revelations about the improper use of data by social media companies, we cannot seem to avoid the one thing that could put a stop to our data privacy nightmares: our smartphones. While we might be aware of some of the data privacy risks, many of us lack the incentive or means to protect our data. Meanwhile, regulators and lawmakers around the world are making moves to safeguard their citizens’ digital privacy.

Earlier this month, watchdogs in the United Kingdom levied a $664,000 fine against Facebook for lacking strong privacy protections and ignoring the threat to users posed by firms like Cambridge Analytica. The fine is the maximum amount allowed under UK law and could signal additional legal action against the social media giant. Across the pond, lawmakers in the United States continue to debate how best to regulate social media and technology companies. Apple and Google have both received requests to explain how they protect sensitive user information gathered on smartphones and on email platforms.

The path is clear: Regulations are coming. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation could transform the ways in which companies collect, store, and use data obtained from users. Even the African Union is debating how best to protect user data in the current climate. Yet despite the inevitability of government protections, few users realise our data is a commodity we own, and even fewer appear concerned enough to change their behaviour. But there is no doubt about it: The crux of any transformation in data protection starts and ends with the individual.

 Source:  Xische Reports , 2018 &  IBM , 2017

Source: Xische Reports, 2018 & IBM, 2017

The debate about data goes back to a simple economic idea: There is no such thing as a free lunch. Facebook and Google offer valuable services free of cost, from video communication to collaborative word processing and one of the best email platforms ever created. But they are not truly free – in exchange for using these platforms, we fork over our data. The user is the product.

The more we use the platform, whether it is Gmail or Messenger, the more data these companies collect about us. That data is then fed into an algorithm that employs some of the most advanced mathematics for the basic task of advertising. Without user data, the system would cease to exist, the algorithm would not be able to adapt, and the business models of the world’s leading tech companies would fall apart.

This is not a warning against any sinister motivations in modern tech. While those might exist, most people in the world understand that Google, Facebook, and even Twitter are, in fact, advertising companies — a seemingly innocuous fact some of us simply choose to ignore.

Solutions to data privacy challenges exist, but none of them are perfect. The Financial Times argues that “consumers need incentives to assert control over what is theirs”. The power of social media companies is simply too overwhelming, leaving users with few options. As such, the FT argues in favour of creating an application that enables users to track and see the value of their data on various platforms.

It is a compelling idea but one that would require regulation. Would governments require smartphone companies to ship these apps? Would all social media platforms have to participate? Who would enforce the use of such an app? Responding to demand, Apple has created a similar app in its new operating system that allows users to set time limits on certain applications (in Apple promotional materials, the app is clearly targeted at Instagram).

The solution to the problem is simple: fundamentally rethinking how we use our smartphones and social media platforms. Through awareness campaigns detailing how data is collected and used by technology companies, consumers can make better choices about how we interact with the internet. For some, Facebook’s reach into our daily lives might prove too much, while others may find no problem with the company’s practices and services. The problem is that most people don’t take the time to reflect on how these platforms and devices impact our lives.

While governments work through their own regulations and companies race to rebrand themselves, it is time for individuals to have a heart-to-heart with our smartphones. Reevaluating our use of technology will do wonders for the industry — and society — as a whole.