Privacy in a Mobile App World

I attended a thought provoking seminar yesterday put on by PRSA’s DC chapter. ( A shout out to Microsoft for hosting it in their beautiful Innovation and Policy Center facility at 9th and K. )  The speakers were great, and their often differing opinions created an interesting tension that perhaps yielded more useful insight than one typically gets at these sorts of events. 

One speaker was a goddess of all the shiny new social media tools, emphasizing the growing importance of group aggregation apps and social proximity networks. I must admit the idea of strangers being able to locate me on the street because of personal preference information I shared online was unnerving. I’ve yet to check out some of the tools she mentioned – Sonar, Blu, Nerd Nearby – but the clear trend was toward people aligning themselves via mobile tools. Instinctively I associate this with 20 somethings, but no demographic data was provided so I really don’t know.

Another speaker had formal education in animal behavior (among his many degrees and other talents). He observed that people who have become online influencers are actually pulling back on their use of social media tools due to overwhelming demand to always be ‘on’ and to have too many people wanting a little piece of them.  He particularly noted that the elites of social media were also looking to newer tools such as Quora and Namesake that have not been tainted by the invasion of ‘brands’ – read that, don’t think about using them for marketing – now that Twitter and Facebook were over-run by such activities.  He also noted that the conversation about social media hadn’t really changed in 3 years – many people now use Facebook or are still learning the basics of Twitter, but they don’t have time or interest in taking on any more.

While there was some polite sparring back and forth about the trends toward or away from further engagement, two things stood out to me: 1) Elites have a different experience curve for this social phenomenon, and in a compressed cycle, fundamental human nature kicks in – even influential, attention seeking people ultimately want and need a boundary that limits how much they’re available to the world. The masses always follow, and it still takes a long time for them to move up the adoption bell curve – but will they ultimately reach the same pull-back point if social media demands get too invasive?  2) Privacy is a core issue for both leaders and followers. While the implications of things such as social proximity networks are a bit frightening to me, the issue goes beyond finding strangers nearby with whom in reality I might actually want to interact if we have some relevant things in common. But —who is aggregating data about my physical movement? What are the implications if, for instance, an entity can figure out that I visit a certain shopping district three times per week, usually on Tuesday and Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings?

The application of these technologies to PR needs (the purpose of yesterday’s seminar) can obviously be beneficial to practitioners targeting audiences on their client’s behalf – and in many ways, that’s a good and useful thing. The implications go way beyond, however, and take the current legislative discussion about online privacy to a vastly different level. I would expect some action to protect personal data in this area soon (although with this Congress, can even something this important be accomplished?) but with technology evolving so fast, can slow, bureacratic legislative bodies keep up?  Mind your data.

1 Response to “Privacy in a Mobile App World”

  1. 1 Dave Durant
    August 11, 2011 at 6:35 am

    Unfortunately, the notion we still have ‘online privacy’ is an illusion. I would contend we have very little societal privacy as well. We still have personal privacy. Nobody watches you take a shower (unless you want them to :-}) but otherwise the details of our lives a readily available to those who wish to have them.

    Think about it. What details about your life have you not given to some entity? Home address, medical information, education, purchases, members of your household, etc. I could go on and on. Even your physical location at any moment can be tracked if you use a service which includes GPS information.

    In most cases we have freely given this information for the necessity and convenience of modern life. What we have given up is privacy. The notion that our government will protect this information is laughable.

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