Response: Four Billion Little Brothers?

October 3, 2012

Four Billion Little Brothers: Privacy, mobile phones, and ubiquitous data collection by Katie Shilton is a call for application developers to treat user’s data with respect and sensitivity, especially in cases where location data is concerned. Shilton describes the modern mobile phone as a sensor that follows you 24/7, and could be simultaneously collecting and sharing your private data to “four billion little brothers.” She sees mobile application developers as the “first line of defense” in protecting our sensitive data.

Although the data collected by your phone is mostly granular (and as a result could be deemed insignificant), third parties can collect massive amounts of this miniaturized information to infer your day-to-day activities (e.g. if you are walking or riding the bus, how often you go to the doctor, etc). These processes can be used for both harm and good, and as such it is important for developers to take appropriate measures in the treatment of user data. Shilton suggests three practices: participant primacy (giving users as much control over their data as possible), longitudinal engagement (ensure the user is engaged in the data collection, analysis, and deletion process), and data legibility (presenting data to users visually, showing how frequently data is drawn from, who it goes to, and how often).

While it is important for developers to be considerate of our privacy, often times we use services that profit from distributing our data, and as a result are much less accountable to their users. There is no way to guarantee Shilton’s desired accountability from developers (without strict government or app-ecosystem regulations), meaning that ultimately we as subjects in this realm of data collection are responsible for understanding the implications of using technology and sharing our information. Even still, services like Facebook, which have come under much scrutiny for their questionable privacy practices, have become a core component to millions of user’s daily lives. When Facebook introduced more privacy management features, users felt more confused rather than empowered.

Based on these developments, it is my recommendation that data literacy be taught in our schools to students at an early age. As technology becomes more and more integrated into our economic and social ecosystems, it should also become our responsibility to understand the new implications of such a world and how we should behave within its confines. One potential way to accomplish this is by teaching students how to program. Generally helping students to define the importance of privacy in a data-sharing environment would be a significant start otherwise.