Are Our Phones The 2020 "Big Brother"?

Published June 22nd, 2020 - 03:00 GMT
Are Our Phones The 2020 "Big Brother"?
Experts argue that many apps, whether using IOS or Android software, have access to our entire lives. (Shutterstock: pedrorsfernandes)

How many times were you discussing an item you wanted to get and instantly had your smartphone's apps suggest stores for the same item? How many times did your phone explode with ads for sofas after you passed by a furniture store? Can this be a coincidence? 

For the last few years, the debate over our smartphones spying on us has been only getting more and more serious, with companies and developers running out of excuses claiming that it's nothing but fortunate unplanned incidents that "just happen to take place at the same time."

Those who closely watch the pattern online ads take, can't easily be convinced that their phones are not spying on them; recording not only every word they type but also listening to conversations they had by these same smartphones.

Experts argue that many apps, whether using iOS or Android software, have access to our entire lives, simply by having access to every input our phones use, such as cameras, microphones, locations, in addition to emails, making the smartphone each of us carries, wherever we go, a strong tool to collect all sorts of data that can be pretty valuable to certain companies.

According to many specialists, we, as users, can't trust app developers even when they say they are "not misusing information acquired through users" devices." This is especially true after the investigations, conducted in the past few years, forced well-known social media networks to confess to selling users data to third parties that needed it for marketing and advertising.

In 2018, the New York Times revealed that Facebook uses every single data available on users' preferences to control the ads they see, consequently making $40 billion in ads revenue during 2017, according to a report by Vox.

Even more dangerously, most apps have you "agree" to its terms of service and privacy policy using multi-page insanely long and detailed contracts, forcing the vast majority of users to click "agree" without reading even one line of it, which sometimes gives developing companies more access and permissions than hoped. In addition to its length, most terms of service displaying windows allow users to use the app only once they click in agreement to all terms at once, making everyone prone to whatever manipulation of legal terms they use to utilize users' information.

Data accessed through our smartphones are not always used to promote products and services. They can be rather helpful to content creators, as it presents them with lots of data which, once analyzed, help in understanding consumers' behaviors and preferences in literally every aspect of life, whether we're talking about their favorite brands, music, food, destinations, or even their hobbies. Not to mention the risks of selling this data to governments to help them control or monitor citizens, and be used to help steer political agendas.

Recently, with more countries creating and promoting tracking apps in an attempt to control the Coronavirus outbreak, the conversation over privacy breaches is re-ignited.

While most apps use devices' locations to identify people, who have been around a COVID-19 patient once diagnosed, some use search history to spot people who have been looking up information on potential symptoms.

The fact that such apps are usually made for governments' use and despite governments pledges to limit data use to health purposes, many people are still suspicious and hesitant to use them.

In a 24-hour  poll conducted by Al Bawaba Business earlier this month, 77% of participants thought that COVID-19 tracking apps violate their privacy, while only 23% felt safer using them, which does point to serious concerns users have in terms of smartphone apps in general.

As users, all we can do is to keep asking questions regarding privacy policies and to keep learning about them. We can also dedicate extra time for reading policy agreements, so we use the least manipulative apps we can find. Additionally, we can vet applications we decide to download to learn more about their history with respecting users' privacy.

Finally, we can limit apps' access to our phones and control which apps have access to which features, so we are as safe as possible, at least for the time being.

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