Do Smartphones Lessen Privacy?

In a new study, researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU) in Israel argue that “dynamic visibility,” in which technological surveillance is combined with personal information volunteered by individuals online, has led to diminished overall privacy.

Their findings appear in the journal Urban Studies.

Investigators discovered that much of our diminished privacy is a result of actions on our part.

“Technology is not only used top-down but also bottom-up, with individuals using their own technological devices to share and enhance their visibility in space,” said Dr. Tali Hatuka, head of the Laboratory for Contemporary Urban Design at TAU’s Department of Geography and Human Environment.

“Whenever we use ‘location-aware’ devices, or tap on Waze or dating apps, like Tinder, or check-in on Facebook, we are really diminishing our own privacy,” Hatuka said.

“This combination of secret surveillance and voluntary sharing contributes to a sense of ‘being exposed’ in a public space that normalizes practices of sharing personal data by individuals,” Hatuka continued. “The result is diminished overall privacy.”

Hatuka co-authored the study with Dr. Eran Toch, co-director of the Interacting with Technology Lab of the Department of Industrial Engineering at TAU’s Faculty of Engineering.

A survey conducted in 2013 by Google and Ipsos MediaCT in dozens of countries found that the Israeli population had the world’s highest smartphone saturation (57 percent) and some of the highest rates of mobile internet usage and mobile email usage.

The new TAU study found some differences among sharing preferences in different types of spaces, but these paled in comparison to the overwhelming willingness of participants to share their locations with their social networks.

The researchers developed an Android application called Smart-Spaces to collect information for the study. The app combines smartphone-based surveys with the online tracking of locations and phone application usage.

The Smart-Spaces application was installed for 20 days on the phones of TAU students, who answered context-based surveys in the course of their daily routines. Each participant was interviewed before and after the installation of Smart-Spaces.

“More than 73 percent of the participants shared their locations as they answered the surveys,” said Hatuka.

“Moreover, there was a correlation between the kind of space they were in —┬áprivate home, library, street, square etc. — and their willingness to provide information, with a higher willingness to share location and other information when the subject was in public spaces.”

Researchers analyzed the data according to different activities, locations, and number of people present at the time.

“While the sample is not representative of the general population, our results can be considered predictors for future phenomena,” Hatuka observed.

“Students are early adopters of smartphone technology, and their practices may predict those of the more general population.”

Source: American Friends of Tel Aviv University
Smartphone technology photo by shutterstock.