Privacy is Important

I just read this short blog on Angry Birds reading contact information from your phone. Now, I bet most people don’t really care and honestly I don’t blame them. Who cares if Rovio gets some email addresses from your address book? That is what spam filters are for anyway. Besides, you can easily unsubscribe from any spam and, thanks to the CAN SPAM act, sue those who disregard your desire not to be bothered. What really bothers me is that my phone is not my computer.

Let me explain. A computer has an operating system that works atop a file system. You can install different operating systems or applications and you can use different filesystems in some cases. You can create folders and organize your files however you want. More than one person typically can use a computer thanks to the features of the operating system. Your computer is something that you can control at a very low level. This is very different from your phone.

A cell phone is on a provider’s network, which brings with it certain restrictions. They have limited physical resources and as such they want to control what can use those resources. Phones also have to adhere to standards set by the government for things like the spectrum at which they communicate and how powerful or limited the antennae function.

Generally, you can’t easily change the operating system the phone uses and installing applications is done through an intermediary (the iTunes App Store, Google App Store, etc.).  Most importantly though, phones are used by only one person.

The larger distinction here is that a phone is personal by default, yet it is the least personalized. If an application is run on your phone, there is a good chance it has access to everything on that phone, contacts, text messages, call history, minutes used, billing info, location information, other applications, etc. It is trivial to access this kind of information because the platform is completely controlled.

There is probably documentation that explicitly shares how to access all this information. Since a phone is personal, the relevance to some company is that the information found on the phone can be directly applied to a specific person.

This is honestly a little scary. It is not scary in that I have things to “hide” but it is scary because there are things that I don’t feel comfortable sharing. If a person comes to your home you welcome them into your living room. They may use your bathroom and you offer them a drink or snak from kitchen. You don’t give them a key to your filing cabinet or your medicine cabinet. These areas of your life are private for a variety of reasons. It is impolite to ask someone how much do you make, so in theory, we should be offended these apps take our personal information on our phones without even asking. It is rude to do as a guest (on your phone) and it is scary because they tell others for money.

As a programmer, the reasons apps don’t ask if it is OK is because it is inconvenient. I don’t believe Rovio is out to do anything more than make money selling games. If they can collect information in the mean time that other people want to use, then why not. User typically don’t want hurdles. Being asked every time your start up Angry Birds whether you mind if they use your location and contacts would be annoying and turn people off to the game. Since they want to make money, they just don’t ask. That doesn’t make it right and it’s rather offensive, but most would probably do the same thing in their shoes. You have a captive audience, a sample,  you can gather specific, accurate information from at almost any time in order to learn something new to help sell other products.

The tough part is that it is convenient for users. Google prides itself on the usefulness of their search results. They take all that anonymous information and use it to help understand what people really want. It is also convenient because instead of teaching your computer explicitly to do things, our machines simply watch what we do and learn our patterns in order to help us. As scary as that sounds, it is realistically very powerful. Computers really are not very smart. Despite what the movies would have you believe, computers need a lot of instructions and people rarely want to provide all that instruction. If you provide a value for all the variables your computer needs, it would be a total waste of your time. Again, if you were asked if your information could be used every time you opened Angry Birds, would still play it?

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use Google or play Angry Birds. We simply need to be more understanding of what we really have in our pockets. Our phones are much closer to our wallet and private life than our computers are. A computer can do anything, but a phone is personal.

The convenience the applications provide is helpful to a point, but we as users need to find a way to force our desire for privacy. Taking the time to see what options are available for applications is a good first step to understanding what an application might be doing behind the scenes to give you a better experience. Avoiding advertisements is another way to take away the value of secret data gathering. If the emails don’t work, they are not going to keep sending them. People fear the world of Big Brother and 1984, but the reality is society is not ruled by an all seeing police force. Instead, we are becoming slaves to our own desires and wants such that we can be controlled simply by focusing our desires on what someone is selling. In this way it is comforting to know that defeating this kind of control is a simple as ignoring the ads and support those who support your privacy.