As we discussed in a previous article, as average daily users of our mobile devices, we are always looking for easier and faster ways to do things, now more than ever via apps. And of course, the race to achieve the next level of efficiency exists amongst all the competing companies and developers who are trying to get ahead of the game in today’s hyper competitive mobile world. So if we are gaining all this extra value from these mobile devices and the apps that run on them, what’s the catch? Is there a catch?
The (not so) Hidden Downside
What many of us may already be aware of is that in order for these apps to provide us with the highest possible level of efficiency, they must collect vast amount of personal data that the individual user generates as they use their mobile device (and in many cases other connected devices such as computer and tablet). Why? Well, this might even be happening without us even realizing it, but in order for an essential app such as Safari on iPhone to return relevant search results, it first gathers data such as search history, geographical location, your Siri searches and more. As a Gadget Hacks article points out specifically regarding Safari privacy settings, one of these settings (Show Siri Suggestions in App) actually shows
“suggestions in Safari based on your activity in and outside of the app — and even from other devices using your Apple ID. Siri intelligence may include content from Messages, Mail, your clipboard, and so on.”
This is just one example, which can be easily considered “the tip of the iceberg”. And all of this data collection happens so seamlessly that we can easily take it for granted. If you’re skeptical, if you have an iPhone and normally use Safari set to the default Privacy settings, try using Qwant instead for a while and see what happens (Qwant is a search engine that does not collect your data to optimize your search results and as a results is more privacy-driven). You may notice that your search results might become annoyingly less relevant and are likely going to switch back to Safari. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is not objectively easy to determine.
It depends on what is ultmately more important to you — efficiency and ease-of-use, or privacy? But can there be an ideal middle ground? What is the ideal balance between these needs? And how difficult should it be to get to the ideal balance? None of these questions are easy to answer, and there are no clear cut ways to go about solving this issue. So there you have it — as it stands, the downside of utility and convenience is the parting with your personal data.
Let’s go a little deeper down this rabbit hole. So, we are aware that our data is collected to personalize our user experience on different apps and platforms. But are there ulterior motives? What has been uncovered (relatively) recently is that the level at which user data is being used by some of the big players is potentially more insidious than we might have expected. We are talking about former Silicon Valley employees in top tier positions alleging that these social media app giants have gone as far as exploiting human psychology to essentially make their apps as addictive as possible — all this in order to maximize the amount of time that users spend on these apps (Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma argues that this is one of the most dangerous things going on in the world right now, potentially already leading us down… yes… civil war). The end-game (unsurprisingly) is to make as much money as possible. The more time a user spends on a social media app, the more opportunity the app has at making profit from advertising, and the advertisements have more opportunity at actually converting these users into paying customers.
Then of course there are counterarguments, that highlight how docudramas like The Social Dilemma are over-simplifying the problem and that there isn’t just one “bad guy” (such as social media) that we can point our finger at and blame as the culprit of all our societal issues. Given that we are becoming so dependent on apps of all kind in order to live a “normal” life in our modern world it should not be a huge stretch to seek at least some regulation as a user in order to have a minimum level of control and awareness of how that user-generated data is being used. In Europe for example there has already been significant movement towards regulating how user data is processed (with the DGPR, or the General Data Protection Regulation) the European Union has codified into law the following:
- Requiring the consent of subjects for data processing
- Anonymizing collected data to protect privacy
- Providing data breach notifications
- Safely handling the transfer of data across borders
- Requiring certain companies to appoint a data protection officer to oversee GDPR compliance
This is a start of course. Ultimately, as users, we can worry about apps that are geared towards gaining your attention and try our best to control our “consumption” (there are some ways to help us control that including screen time tracking and other aids. So on one hand we do have at least a certain level of personal responsibility in trying to moderate our usage of certain apps. It is also true that for example children obviously have a lesser ability to self-regulate, and in that case perhaps parental controls could somehow be incorporate in a more practical way on smartphone devices as well as on software itself. On the other hand, we have a whole other category of apps that are considered significantly more utilitarian, such as banking apps or delivery apps that are not necessarily engineered to keep the user fixated on their phone’s screen for as long as possible. So at the end of the day, there are different ways that these apps are using user data, and how this data is mined and what it is mined for can vary dramatically.
What The Future Holds
So, what should users, companies, and developers do about all this? There is not clear-cut answer, but we can start with some basics. For users, it’s important the they are educated about screen time and to try and clearly define their own boundaries when it comes to their usage when it comes to more “addictive” apps. Users can also continue to advocate for their own self interests when it comes to the collection and use of their data. Governments can find ways to set new laws that satisfy the users’ right to privacy while at the same time not jeopardizing the usefulness, personalization, and convenience of use.
Companies and developers are starting to look more closely at the potential ramifications of the ethical aspects of their product, and there is hope for the future where the ultimate goal of profit maximization won’t necessarily be at odds with the basic data protections that most individuals seek for themselves and especially younger audiences including their children. Responsible data usage on behalf of companies is not just trendy, but is likely to become a core aspect of any new technology if the user base continues to be educated on the topic and continues to apply pressure on their own political arena. Of course there will always be opposing forces at play, and this is where lobbying efforts can make or break the advancement of certain laws, but if history has taught us anything is that generally speaking, the trend is to move forward with advancing user rights, so we are likely going to see that continue in the future.
Mapendo is a tech platform for app user acquisition. We deliver huge volumes of CPA & CPI conversions to the best mobile apps available with A.I.
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