Editorial: Smartphone privacy regulations in dire need of reform

The smartphone revolution marked a fundamental shift in the ways in which the average consumer communicates and shares information on a day-to-day basis.  One no longer need stay home to reap the benefits of a thriving online community – the Internet in all its glory is always just a few finger taps away.  But, in the race to produce faster and more powerful smartphones, it would seem that tech companies have left the law enforcement agencies responsible for policing online activity in the dust.

It was revealed last week that Google has, once again, been tracking iPhone users’ activity on the platform’s default web browser, Safari.  Evidently, the company managed to sneak in a bit of code that covertly records the sites users visit on their iPhones.  The announcement, while disconcerting, was not particularly surprising.  This is not the first time Google has been caught snooping through smartphone users’ records.  And they aren’t alone.

Twitter was also recently accused of violating its users’ privacy.  Apparently, the official Twitter smartphone app records and stores users’ contacts for up to 18 months after being used.  Twitter’s response, like Google’s, was shockingly nonchalant.  The organization admitted that it had failed to properly inform users that it was taking down their private information and vowed that in the future it would be clearer about what its apps were doing—not even a hint of regret that it was stealing users’ information in the first place.

It is generally understood that most of this tracking is being conducted primarily in order to enable companies to advertise more efficiently to their costumers. If Google, for example, knows what sites a consumer visits on a regular basis, it has a pretty good idea of what sorts of products and services it would be most successful in marketing to him or her.

It does not appear, then, that either of these companies is interested in using consumer information to fulfill particularly malicious intentions, but that does not mean that their actions are not cause for alarm.  There are more smartphone users in the world than ever (1/3 of American adults), and the notion that their every move is being monitored by profit-hungry corporate conglomerates is more than a little unnerving.

Consumers rarely see any cause to distrust the services they are rendered by their smartphones.  We readily offer up our credit card and bank information, our addresses and phone numbers and logs of our daily interactions and travels to smartphone apps.  And we do so, quite simply, because that’s how the system functions.

Yelp! can’t direct me to the nearest Chinese food restaurant if it doesn’t know where I am, nor can my banking website give me updates on my account if I don’t give it my financial information. Smartphones must have access to users’ personal information, because without it they could not connect us to the online resources upon which we have become so dependent.

But we must remember that when one provides a particular smartphone app or online service with one’s information, one is entrusting that information to a private corporation with its own vested interests.  That corporation should be held to the same privacy standards to which any other online resource would be held, but as it stands keeping smartphone service providers honest is a tall order.

Smartphones have become so advanced so quickly that there hasn’t been enough time to legislate privacy regulations for them.  And consumer demands for higher smartphone efficiency and functionality have ensured that the industry continues to develop at a breakneck pace, making its progress hard to track and even harder to police.

It is time for smartphone users to take a hard line stance on the practices in which we allow app creators and online service providers to take part.  User interaction on smartphones must be protected, and the power we have given service providers must be regulated.

All this is not to say that smartphones and app creators are all suspect or that the cultural revolution they have engendered should be in any way discounted.  Smartphones have had a profoundly positive effect on American culture, but convenience always comes at a cost.  As ever, if we don’t remain vigilant about monitoring our progress, it could get the best of us.

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