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Is Privacy Even Possible in a Mobile-Centric World?

You can prevent most people (or even the FBI) from unlocking an iPhone, but you can’t prevent an app loaded on your same iPhone from hijacking tons of information and violating your privacy. The world of both online and mobile privacy needs to be addressed by lawmakers.

Privacy is easy to endorse philosophically but very hard to enforce. As the airing of the work between Facebook/Cambridge Analytica clearly showed, our supposedly private online activities are increasingly monitored, cataloged and monetized by organizations. And that is only the tip of the iceberg.

In her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff pointed out that Google, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and the thousands of other “social media” sites around the globe weren’t designed to bring people closer together. Rather, they were designed to predict, influence and monetize human behavior by tracking and analyzing our every search, location, like, video, photo, post.

PEW research concludes that most social media users have no understanding of how they are paying for the “free” services they use. They found:

  • 74 percent do not know the services maintain lists of traits, interests and other data
  • Still, 51 percent were uncomfortable with them gathering that information

The fact is that people have simply sold their privacy for the services they use, and as long as they don’t think about that too much, they’re okay with that.

And while older individuals are concerned about it, the generations that were born online and with a smartphone in their hands think about/fret about it even less. They often claim, “It’s no big deal. It won’t ever create any real problem. That is, they don’t think about or worry about it until it’s too late: someone highjacks their computer or, worse, creates a false claim about them publicly.

For example during the recent CBS 60 Minutes segment Scott Pelley talked with a young lady named Monica Sun about the fact that Chinese citizens used their phones for everything – buying products/services, finding locations/things, connecting with folks.

He asked her if she worried about all of the information that was being collected and used and her response was, “I never think about it.” Asked if Chinese citizens worry about their privacy she said, “Not that much.” We believe that the same holds true of most people – particularly millennials – around the globe.

They’re too busy posting selfies, following folks, counting how many people are following them, exchanging positive and negative comments, bragging/complaining about people, places, things and being increasingly living a digital life.

Yes, the EU said personal information was private and developed their General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) law so that firms that collect, store and process personal information must have consent from users before their data can be used by others.

GDPR influenced changes in data privacy laws across the globe:

  • Canada: Amendments to the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act went into effect in November 2018
  • Australia: Breach notification amendments to Australia’s Privacy Act of 1988 went into effect in February 2018
  • India: A draft of the Personal Data Protection bill was submitted in July 2018
  • Brazil: There is now a law in effect that is very similar to GDPR
  • South Africa: The region is now implementing the Protection of Personal Information Act
  • California introduced the states Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 just went into effect January 1, 2019

The challenge is people like/expect their privacy but they like their connections and convenience more:

  • Don’t make me hunt for a TV show just bring it up
  • Tell me when there is a sale on towels rather than having me constantly check or worse miss out
  • Know me when I come into the store and give me recommendations based on prior purchases
  • Recommend activities while I’m on holiday based on what I like/dislike so I can maximize my enjoyment

And the privacy is never black and white. Apple’s Tim Cook’s recently wrote an op ed on not unlocking iPhones for law enforcement (and not giving them backdoor keys). However, easy access to the information on the user’s iPhone within their apps could lead to a complete loss of the user’s personal information.

Take a look at DNA services that give people insights about their ancestry as well as verify nearby relationships (or exclude them) via tests and matches.

If that information is shared, it might pinpoint health issues before they arise so they can be corrected or might be able to find donors to save their lives. It has already been used capture killers in cold cases bringing closure for the family.

But that same information can be used by insurance companies to deny or increase the cost of coverage. Geico and other insurers offered people possible reductions on their insurance policies if they used one of their monitors. Again, these insurance providers are paying people to get access to their personal information. Once your personal information is provided to others like insurance providers, it is available to almost anyone in the world.

Despite all of the governmental laws, there is an even greater challenge to privacy that comes out of the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI). At CES, IBM’s Ginni Rometty said she was optimistic that AI will eventually be able to leverage data wherever it resides, but it should be used to augment – not replace – human expertise. Just think of the implication here for your privacy.

We believe seasoned organizations/teams like IBM’s, Microsoft’s and a few others can and will act responsibly. Others may act to use that information to extort money from you to keep quiet (or worse).

AI may be able to find information about you from anywhere and then leverage that to either provide wonderful benefits (“By our calculations, you should be out of Multi-Vitamins by now. Can we order you a replacement?”) or horrible outcomes (“Hey Alexa, how come by husband is home late every Wednesday evening?” “According to our location tracking data analysis, he is visiting Amy Sutherland, age 23 at her apartment from 4-7 pm every Wednesday. Would you like us to send them a bottle of Champagne?”).

Strategic Insights

Many of the new crop of AI-enabled things – such as “innovative breakthroughs” talked about at CES – concern us as much as the AI ventures Pelley discussed with China’s VC Kai-Fu Lee – the oracle of AI – during the 60 Minutes segment mentioned earlier. Lee proudly noted that he had funded more than 140 AI start-ups. Just look at the number of AI-related patents are getting files in China vs. the US:

At the same time, industry tracker CB Insights reported that last year AI equity deals were hot and heavy across every industry segment as folks rushed to get their technology out first and capture billions. And the enthusiasm for AI is growing rapidly! While we are excited to see new innovations caused by advances in AI, we think there should be some caution as well.

We’re not going to play Chicken Little here running around screaming “The sky is falling!” because most of the introductions will be single/routine/redundant-task focused. But give AI technology enough personal data and there may never be privacy again.

Written jointly by:

    1. Gerry Purdy, Ph.D. ,Principal Analyst, Mobile & Wireless, Mobilocity LLC, [email protected]
    2. Andy Marken , Strategic Marketing & Public Relations, Marken Communications, [email protected]