If any of you follow the tech industry, as I have repeatedly suggested you do, you will have picked up on the Path fiasco. Just a bit of contextual information here: Path is an iOS (iPhone, iPod, etc.) app that is based on a social experience, like Instagram and the basics of Twitter combined. I have no idea why this app is so popular, but it seems to be so largely in the US amongst the tech pundits I read. Anyway, through a small mistake, it turned out that accidentally Path uploaded the entirety of the user’s address book info to their servers. A few hours later, they responded by issuing an apology and a confirmation that the data has been wiped off their servers.
I commend the Path team for their quick and responsive action (unlike Sony at the downfall of the PSN), but aside from that, this story revealed gaping holes mobile platforms’ protocol, just like the location data fiasco early last year, where Apple and others were highly criticised for storing an unencrypted file containing location data from the past 6 months. In this case, we are seeing that multiple apps are uploading entire address books to their servers without explicit user permission, like Twitter uploading and storing that data on their servers for 18 months, contrary to what happens currently with location data, where the mobile OS (be it iOS, Windows Phone or Android) will request permission on behalf of the app to use your location.
This is being dubbed “Address book-gate”
Apple has recently issued a statement to AllThingsD detailing their plans to implement a dialog box to appear when an app wants to use address book data, like now with location.
This is good. We are seeing an effort by these companies to protect our data. I actually prefer Google’s approach with Android: they basically ask you if an app can use all your data (being more specific of course)! Google’s method here is making the user in charge of his/her data, making us the creators and curators, and not just mass creators, churning out vast amounts of extremely valuable data (well, to advertising agencies anyway).
It is here where I would like to show you a video of Steve Jobs talking on Privacy.
This is the point I wanted to get up to. Not to sound to controversial, but when it comes to consumer technology, I personally believe people are not as smart as some might believe. I draw this conclusion from many people asking me slightly silly and pestering questions within my role as family & friends complementary IT support, but that is only because they are not informed of what this, that and the other means.
Steve is somewhat contradicting himself in a way here, as he has said on many occasions that the device should “just work“, implying that the user should not really have to worry about these things.
I do believe, however, that people are indeed smart when it comes to making informed decisions.
What I mean by this is tightly linked to the Path fiasco above. Sure, you can ask people whether they grant permission for an app to access your personal address book data or location data or shopping data or searching data, but the user, from what my home IT help desk experience has told me, is that users do not know the context, reason behind or consequences of such a dialog popup on their device.
This is a recurring theme I have seen across the industry time and time again during my short time following it. Uninformed decisions lead to a breakdown of communication between the user and service, and a lack of knowledge of where your data is or what it is being used for, but for people to make these informed decisions requires contextual knowledge, which can be hard to deliver within one dialog box. Imagine seeing the question popping up: “Do you allow this app to use your location data? The potential consequences of allowing this are…” followed by a long list.
It is a challenge that the user, whether they or the companies providing this software like it or not, will have to deal with. How do you educate someone on making an informed decision on a seemingly mundane question?
You cannot. It is, by definition, impossible: you cannot educate someone by bombarding them with a whole bunch of facts! People need to be self sufficient and see what is going on out there themselves. I have come to realise that mainstream news sucks when reporting tech news, so I, being the type of questioning person I am, don’t rely on them for my general news, for fear of it being inevitably filtered and tailored to suit their agenda.
Instead, I go to the people directly; read their blogs, follow their twitter feeds, look at their Facebook posts, etc. In this way, I learned about the issues first hand, by the people who are the real reporters on the front line. I am no longer just talking about tech, but news in general, by the way. I would urge you to do something similar, but do so however you feel appropriate to your circumstances.
You cannot educate facts and expect a person to act based on those, but people can formulate their own opinions from those facts and act on those instead.
People are smart, unbelievably smart, just make the informed decision first before making any rash decisions and jumping to conclusions, like granting or not granting an app permission to use location data! It’s a smaller issue than those going on in the world today, but understanding it will help you to look at these from a different perspective, with contextual knowledge and first hand data to guide you.