The dust is finally settling after Apple's announcement of new devices and the release of iOS 8, just in time for the spotlight to shift to the upcoming release of Google's Android mobile OS, currently dubbed Android L. Both companies have delivered a raft of new features ranging from support for wearables to enhanced camera software; however, some of the features that have received lower billing are now coming to light, among them an increased focus on privacy.
Fight for freedom or quest for market share?
Both Android L and iOS 8 offer encryption that's enabled by default, and protects messages, photos, and other content on the phone. Whereas it was relatively trivial to connect a smartphone to a computer running specialized software and "vacuum" all manner of data off the device, these same tools will now only be able to collect a block of encrypted data rather than the photos from your most recent vacation.
To hear representatives from Apple and Google tell it, the companies are nobly fighting the good fight to protect consumers' data, after revelations about government and law enforcement spying and data collection efforts. Critics argue that this is merely a marketing move on two fronts. Privacy is decidedly "in," so stoking fears of government agents around every corner only serves to increase interest in upgrading to new mobile software, and presumably devices that support the software. Encryption and access limitation also wall off user data to competing services. If Apple controls the gate to a user's content, presumably the company can use that content in its marketing efforts and prevent competitors from accessing it when it returns to encrypted storage.
Skeptics of Apple and Google's newfound interest in privacy also suggest that these are merely efforts to force the government's hand, and relieve the companies of some of the regulatory burdens they have been tasked with.
The argument for access
Law enforcement agencies have also bristled at the moves toward encryption, suggesting that legitimate crimes can be solved when law enforcement is able to access smartphones with relative ease. Just as a search warrant gives law enforcement authorized access to one's personal effects, a court-ordered warrant should allow law enforcement to easily access one's personal data. To a lesser extent, IT managers accustomed to tools like BlackBerry Enterprise Server that can extract nearly every detail from a managed device bristle at the suggestion that an employee could hide unsavory data on a company-owned device.
The case for trust
I've always been an advocate of treating employees and citizens like adults: assume they're capable of operating appropriately until you are proven otherwise. Will criminals, terrorists, nefarious actors, and bad employees be able to hide unsavory actions using encryption technologies? Certainly. However, basing your society or employee handbook on proactively punishing anyone who strays from the path of righteousness is punishing the many to root out the exception case. Whether Apple and Google truly have consumers' best interests in mind or are merely looking to capture a few points of market share, increased awareness of how our devices store, monitor, and transmit our personal data is a good thing for the mobile industry and society as a whole.
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.