• thewhitehatter

Is Our Privacy Being App’d?

According to Robinson Partner Research, the “app” world was a 20 million dollar industry in 2011. An app, short for “application,” being nothing more than a piece of digital software, has changed the way that we purchase programs for computers, tablets, and phones. In years gone by, we would purchase software at a local computer store and then download it onto our device when we got home. Today, all we need to do is click a little button on sites like Facebook, iTunes, or the Android store, and then magically within seconds it appears on our device ready for use. Although some of these apps come with a monetary cost, many can also be downloaded for free. What some users do not understand however is that many of the apps that we are downloading, especially those that are free, come with a cost. The cost is the collection and then the distribution and sale of our personal information to third party vendors who want to sell us stuff. Some of the personal information that these apps are collecting include (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • home address

  • date of birth

  • current location in the world

  • education

  • sexual preference

  • city in which you live

  • religious beliefs

  • political beliefs

  • medical conditions

  • search habits

The digital dossiers that some of these apps are collecting about their users is very attractive to the 28 billion dollar online advertising industry who are willing to pay huge dollars to app developers to have access to this information. The collection and sale of our personal information has become a multi-billion dollar industry, and one that we should be more concerned and diligent about as digital citizens.

With the convenience of downloading an app also comes something that psychologists call the “habituation” effect. Habituation is when we do something so often over time that it becomes less important to us to understand potential consequences to those repeated actions. Although many apps are required to ask us for “permission” before releasing our personal data to third party vendors, when the “permission” message pops up on our device it’s just easier to hit the “yes” prompt than to really consider, or even understand, the consequences it may have to the release of our private information.

In July 2009, the Privacy Commissioner Of Canada reported that they found that Facebook was sharing too much information about their user base with app developers, without notifying their users that they were doing so. Although Facebook agreed to make some of the changes that the Commissioner recommend, Facebook still allowed a user’s profile (by default) to let app developers obtain all data, other than sexual preference, religion, and political beliefs, from a user’s friends. What this means is that a user’s friend is not notified if information about them is used or even collected by a friend’s app. Things that make you go hmmm…

Although I love the digital world, I do feel that our privacy is slowly being eroded online because of app convenience (as well as voluntarily sharing too much information in our social networks), when combined with habituation and the disinhibition effect that the online world can project. Obtaining our personal and private information equals financial profit to big business. What will this mean to us individually in the future? That my friends in the multi-billion dollar privacy question that the covert collectors of our personal and private information do not want us to consider.

Before you download your next app and hit the “permission” prompt, carefully read the fine print to understand what it will do specific to the collection and distribution of your personal and private data. The sad reality however, most of you will not, and that is what some in the personal data collection app industry are banking on!

Digital Food For Thought

Darren Laur

AKA #thewhitehatter