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GLOBAL – Amna Khwaja is like most of us who manage our lives on our mobiles – she’s juggling different worlds, and a lot of information. She uses Twitter and Facebook to tell theatre people about the latest plays that she’s directing, but she also uses LinkedIn and social networks to manage other professional work. Then there are status updates that are just for friends – and messages for family, who make up another network all together.

It’s hard to keep up with who knows what and, even if none of that information is secret, we all know that we share different sides of our lives with different people:

“Something can be said in the heat of the moment, but later miserably regretted – and, let’s say, it can be misconstrued…”

The extent of just how much information is out there became clear when Facebook began reviewing its privacy and profile settings after an employee papered every wall of the office with data that was held about him under the label – ‘old posts’. And now we increasingly manage all of those online interactions on our mobiles, not on our desktop computers.

You want to find your friends, work out how far you are from a restaurant, tell your mum about the funny thing you saw on the train, order a book or a present, write a status update to impress the crowd in the office or send a drunken photo of your night out. Mobiles have become an extension of our being; containing a wealth of information about our habits, behaviours, movements, relationships and innermost thoughts.

The question is whether we know it, what we want to do about it – and to what extent we want the companies we interact with to help us manage the process.


“Something can be said in the heat of the moment but later miserably regretted..”


Nokia’s Consumer Privacy Team is already working in this area, and Nokia has a broad set of privacy principles in place.

One of the world’s leading experts in mobile privacy is Patrick Walshe, who said:

“Nokia is really looking at how to be creative and innovative in this area. In particular, thinking about how the next billion people are going to be connected to the internet is very important. So developing a phone that holds dual SIMs, and five different profiles, is good news in terms of privacy. If you are a young man living in some countries, and sharing your phone with four other members of your family, there is information that you might want to keep to yourself.”

For example, you might not want your grandmother to find out that you are gay from your browsing history.

Mobile privacy is different

Most people consider what they do on their mobiles to be very private – you might answer someone’s landline without giving it a second thought, but you wouldn’t answer someone’s mobile without permission. People have very intimate relationships with their mobiles. They’re almost an extension of our bodies. Messing with someone else’s is considered an intrusion into their personal space.

privacy image from the open university

The Privacy Rights Management for Mobile Applications project (PRIMMA) run jointly by Imperial College London and the Open University, looked at how mobiles have changed our notions of privacy.

“Research shows that people make very different choices when they think they are being observed, than when they think they are doing something in private,” says Arosha Bandara from the Open University.


“This is particularly relevant for mobiles when people may not be aware that they are being observed.”

PRIMMA conducted research on location-based apps, and what happened when people were prompted when they made updates to social networks.

Social Networking: 

“For social networks the results were very interesting,” Bandara said, “We found that technical solutions are often not the answer. People found their own ways to guard their privacy, maybe writing a status update in coded language that only certain people would understand, rather than changing the privacy settings on their profile to only send certain messages to certain groups or people.”

Using a specially designed location-based app, PRIMMA tested how people used the software when they thought they weren’t being observed, and when they knew they were. Bandara said: “We told people when they were using the app and when other people could see their location, and we told the people who were monitoring them when the other person knew that they were checking out their location.” Perhaps not surprisingly, people changed their behaviour considerably when they either knew they were being ‘followed’ or knew that the person they were following realized they were aware of it:


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A US survey in April 2011 found that: 

98% Think privacy is important on a mobile.

77% Don’t want to share location info with apps.

33% Said they want more control over personal info.

Harris Interactive survey for TRUSTe




“Spouses tended to only check out their husbands’ and wives’ location when it was deemed ‘necessary’ if they thought the other person was aware of it.” Unmonitored, people tended to check out someone’s location in a much more voyeuristic way. In other words, they stalked them.  

So if prompting people to make them aware of their behaviour on a mobile leads them to be much more aware of their privacy, do mobile service providers need to take more steps to remind people what they are making public?

Patrick Walshe acknowledges that managing privacy through lots of messages on a mobile is difficult: “You can send people consent forms, but if you get a very long form on a mobile you tend to just agree to it to get it out of the way without even reading it – so is that meaningful? And if you are having interactions with multiple companies every time you use a single app does that mean you get a form from each company? What do you do in countries where there are high levels of illiteracy and people can’t even read the forms?”  

Walshe led the development of a Mobile Privacy Initiative for the GSMA, the operator trade association, and is now working on designing privacy icons and nudges.

One of those concepts, developed by PRIMMA, is a ‘Privacy Butler’ which would “go around after you cleaning up your mess,” says Arosha Bandara.

A Privacy Butler?

Bandara uses the example of someone who is sharing a photo on a social network: “The ‘Privacy Butler’ would pop up and say – do you know that photo has location information embedded in it? Or it would learn enough about your preferences to know that you don’t actually want to share that location information, and it would strip it out.”

The idea seems appealing. Amna Khwaja says: “I like the idea of a privacy butler. I think it would give me more freedom about whether I want to share this information…and what I’d like to remain personal.”

As we all know though, constant interruptions from software that likes to second guess us, or ask us questions, can quickly get irritating. And establishing principles, and software, that would work across a diverse industry of manufacturers, app developers, social networks and phone operators would be a challenge – to put it mildly.

It’s an age thing too. ‘Grown-ups’ have rigid social networks, separate friends from work colleagues, and agonize over who knows where they are, and what retailers have deduced from information about which ATM they use – but that’s old school.

The boom in mobiles is driven by teenagers. There are billions of them around the world, they’re all going to buy mobiles, and often they have topsy-turvy social networks with thousands of contacts made up of everyone they’ve ever met, and quite lot of people they haven’t. While many care deeply about their privacy, they don’t necessarily want to stop and think before every interaction. Will they also want a privacy icon deciding what they show to whom?       

Learn more about mobile privacy and share your ideas for solutions at IdeasProject here