The smartphone: balancing convenience with privacy

smartphoneThe smartphone has become completely integral to our everyday lives in recent years. Just think for a moment about the device you reach for when you first wake up in the morning.

What’s in your hand when you’re making coffee, or when you’re sat on the tube or the bus on your way to work?

It doesn’t seem that long ago that I would leave work on a Friday night to meet some friends, unconcerned about the amount of battery my phone had.

Now it’s different. There’s a charger at the office, at home, and I even have a spare. Just in case. So important is the device now, that most of our plans and correspondences are stored within it.

The more we share on our smartphones, the more they are becoming our transmitter to the outside world. But are we completely aware of the consequences?

When I was leaving my office for a course a few nights ago, my phone vibrated in my pocket. A message informed me that if I wanted to arrive on time then I needed to set off immediately. The incredible thing is that this kind of thing seems perfectly normal now. The smartphone has become more sophisticated in recent years, but we have evolved to take the changes in our stride.

At Ipsos MediaCT, we know from our Global Trends study that 7 in 10 adults in Great Britain feel that they are constantly looking at screens these days, and three quarters cannot imagine life without the internet.

If we have adapted well to changes in technology, we have certainly noticed the increased speed of consumption and sharing via smartphones. Almost any information we desire is a swipe of a screen away. The culture of now has arrived. Whether it’s sharing thoughts and ideas via Twitter, uploading photos on Instagram, or group conversations on Whatsapp – it’s all about immediacy.

The smartphone is not just quick – it’s convenient too. Facebook have tapped into this desire for convenience by announcing a new function called Nearby Friends, notifying you of when your friends are close by. However it also aims to allay fears about privacy by making it an opt in service, and making the location of friends slightly vague (half a mile or a mile away, for example).

This reflects a wider conflict within social media between people desiring convenience but also trying to remain in control of personal data. This may not always be possible. People are downloading apps without reading the small print and so could be unaware of the information that is being shared.

What Facebook are doing with Nearby Friends seems like a sensible decision. Let the users themselves decide where to draw the line.

Ultimately there is an extent to which people accept that they can’t have their social media cake and eat it too. Nearly 8 in 10 GB adults agree that it is inevitable that we will all lose some privacy in the future because of what new technology can do.

We have moved so quickly to adapt to a world where our smartphones store vast amounts of information about us that we don’t always stop to think about all of the implications. But as long as the positives outweigh the negatives, there won’t be too many people complaining.

Tom Cross is  research manager at Ipsos MediaCT