Privacy In The Smartphone Age

Most of us have probably encountered this "phenomena" before.You are talking to a friend about a particular product or brand,then later,when you log on to your social medias,be it Twitter,Facebook or Instagram,suddenly an ad about the brand or product you were talking about pops up.And then you wonder,is my phone spying on me?Well in actuality,your phone is indeed spying on you,and the plot twist is that,you are actually allowing it to spy on you!!

In their decade or so of existence,smartphones have changed the way we live,drastically. We do almost everything with our phones.There exist an app for almost every single activity you can think of.You want to learn Mandarin?there is an app for that.You forgot where you parked your car at the mall?there is an app for you to find it.You want to know how many toilets you have pooped in last year?there is an app for that (yes,really,there is actually an app for that). Although smartphones have made our lives so much more convenient,like with everything else,they also come with their cons.Whenever we install an app,what we are doing is allowing it to use some component of our phone as well as the data you put and receive on the app to be able to do whatever we think the app was developed to do.

 I am going to talk specifically about social media apps because they are the most used by smartphone users. Whenever you install your Twitter,Instagram or whichever social media app,you are prompted to read the terms and conditions,which lay out what the app will be doing with your data and phone components. Because we are soooo in a hurry to nowhere,most of us never bother to actually read these terms and conditions.We just check that "I agree" box then its onto to using the app. We proceed to allow the app access to every component of our phones,be it the camera,microphone,location and the actual data that you send and receive through the app,without even thinking twice about what exactly the app will be using those components and that data for.

What we do is just assume that we know what the app will be using the component for. We think,hey,Instagram needs my camera so i can use their cool Boomerang camera, Whatsapp need my microphone so i can send my voice notes,nothing else. Our illusions of privacy. What we do not know is that these apps,possibly, do not only use those components only when the app is opened. When you agreed for that app to use that camera,the condition was not "allow access when app is open".No,the condition was simply,"allow access". What the app will not explicitly tell you is that,it probably uses these components to collect information even when you are not actually using the app. What the app also does not tell you clearly is that,after you allow them access information,they use complicated algorithms to pinpoint your preferences,your habits,your tastes etc, then are able to make and avail tailored ads for you to see and eventually proceed to purchase that advertised product.You inbox a friend that you want to buy a cute little kitten,an algorithm uses this information to determine that,"oh,this guy is buying a cat soon" ,then after a few hours,boom,you see an ad for cat food on your timeline.

That is basically how that "phenomena" of you seeing ads of things you do not recall sharing publicly on the app happens. You are chatting with a friend about how you like a particular product,the app,which you have allowed to access your phone's microphone,is probably recording this information. You are traveling to a particular place then suddenly,you see ads of hotels in that place,its not magic. The app,which you have allowed access to your phone's location,probably recorded your location and availed that information to you. What these apps do is simply use this information about customers to conveniently place ads for you,the naive user. Is it legal?Yes it is because technically,you allowed the app to collect this information. The fact that most of these apps are "free" is just an illusion.The moment you upload any information on a social media app,whether its through a public status up or a private information,that information belongs to the app. The information they collect from you is very much valuable and making them billions of dollars and they are getting it free of charge. So they are making money off of you whilst you,well, you get your ego stroked by the Instagram and Facebook likes and that is all you gain.

A couple of months ago,there was a huge scandal about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. I will try to give a very brief summary about the situation. A developer man a game app for Facebook,which when installed,allowed the app to collect information,including private messages about the app user as well as their Facebook friends. The developer,instead of deleting that information after it was used for the app,kept that data in a private database. He then sold that information about users to Cambridge Analytica,who used it to compile voter profiles which it claims helped Trump win the 2016 US presidential runoff. Voter profiles work this way,using the information about voters attained from this database,Cambridge Analytica was able to target campaign messages based on a voter's profile.For example,if a user had at one point posted on Facebook about how "they had enough of these illegal immigrants", Cambridge Analytica will then target that user with campaign messages about how Trump was going to be strong on borders  . In short,the users naively gave their (and their friends) data to the app so they can enjoy the app,but what they did not know was that the same data ended up being sold to a third party. The same thing happens with social media apps and the only reason it is legal is that,unlike that Facebook app developer,they do not sell your information to third parties but they do however use your information to cater ads for third parties.

So,we know that our information is being collected and used by these apps for what we did not specifically want it to be used for,but what can we do about it?Well it is a bit of a catch-22 situation really.The option we have to prevent these apps from accessing our data is to,well,stop using the apps. But like as already mentioned earlier,these apps play such a vital part in making our everyday lives convenient and who does not like convenience. Imagine a life without your Twitter,Facebook,Whatsapp etc.Very gloomy isn't it?The second option is to know exactly what information these apps have access to on our phones then afterwards,an individual can decide for themselves whether they value the app or their privacy more.The fact of the matter is that,all of these apps collect our information because that is how they work. Sometimes they do it so as to improve the app and make it more tailor made for us,the users,and sometimes it is to just make money out of us,a whole lot of it.

These apps may not be using our information to do sci-fi movie things like building a clone population but the fact that these apps we love so much gets information about us in such a discreet way still sounds not ok.The complicated algorithms they use enable them to collect so much information not only about us,but about people we talk to,our habits,their habits,our preferences,their preferences and so on. Until legislation changes and requires them to give us all the nitty-gritty details about when they access our information,how exactly they access it and what exactly they do with it,and we take the time out of our "busy" schedules to actually read and understand this information, this symbiotic relationship will carry on for years even decades to come.