Not long ago, one of the biggest problems with highly connected devices was the risk of "over sharing." This was understandable; sitting in a quiet room with a smartphone or laptop seemed the epitome of privacy, and users would post everything from intimate to inflammatory remarks that they would later regret. Our devices helped create that illusion of privacy, since we already trusted them with contacts, our schedule, banking information, and the ability to rapidly communicate with friends, family, colleagues, and even intimate partners.
Now the perception of our mobile devices seems to be changing. Colleagues and family members whom I once admonished to remember that "the Internet never forgets" are now asking if they need to cover their devices' cameras for fear of inadvertent spying, stoked by NSA revelations. When not worried about nefarious government entities, even the very services and retailers we trusted with the details of our lives seem stacked against us. Recent stories show sites like Facebook partnering with universities and manipulating users' news feeds to study how their mood is affected in the name of "research," and increasingly sophisticated marketing and A/B testing has consumers feeling like lab rats rather than valued customers.
Rather than a portal to associates, friends, and family, many now perceive that our devices are serving other masters, tracking details about our lives and reporting them to everyone from retailers, to our wireless providers, to government entities. Will this change the relationship with our mobile devices?
The end of the "big network"
One potential implication of this perception shift is a transition away from the mass-market "curated" social networks. While Facebook and Twitter are the first names you think of when you consider social networking, they're also the most likely to mine data for everything from marketing to experimentation. Younger users in particular are eschewing these networks in favor of chat-based services, where they directly control the members, and content is transient in nature rather than posted and preserved for all to see. Functionality around privacy and security are becoming more valuable than widespread sharing and fancy features.
Intriguingly, these changes are occurring just as marketing spend on IT is rapidly growing, and reporting and analytical abilities are growing by leaps and bounds. Many companies are developing innovative services and applications that rely on users providing access to everything from their location, to the temperature of their home, to the amount of fuel in their car. Users who feel increasingly suspicious about the data their devices capture and how those data are used are going to be less willing to share, eroding a foundational requirement for many of these services to be successful.
As technologists, we need to start considering the implications of capturing and leveraging users' personal information, with notifications that rarely extend beyond legalese buried in terms and conditions documents that are longer than War and Peace. Many companies have looked to Google's famous admonition to "Do no evil." Perhaps this should be amended to "Don't be creepy," lest the intrusive use and misuse of the capabilities of mobile technology alienate the very users we hope to woo.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.