Smartphones basically control our lives, which makes it easier to access information faster, but the information we see and receive on our smartphones is just a fraction of the data they generate. By tracking our behaviour and activities, smartphones build a digital profile of intimate information about our personal lives.
These digital profiles are traded between companies and used to make inferences and decisions that affect the opportunities open to us and our lives. This typically happens without our knowledge, consent or control. The latest and most sophisticated technology that is built into smartphones makes it easy to track and monitor users behaviour.
A vast amount of the information can be collected from our smartphones, both when the user is active and while apps are running in the background. This information can include our current location, internet search history, communications, social media activity, finance and biometric data such as fingerprints and facial features. It can also include metadata – information about the data – such as the time and recipient of a text message.
All this data can reveal something about our interests and preferences, views, hobbies and social interaction. Different types of data can be consolidated and linked to building a comprehensive profile of us. Companies that buy and sell data – data brokers – already do this. They collect and combine billions of data elements about people to make inferences about them. This kind of data can reveal sensitive information, such as ethnicity, income levels, educational attainment, marital status, and family composition.
The most obvious reason for companies collecting information about individuals is for profit, to deliver targeted advertising and personalised services. Some targeted ads, while perhaps creepy, aren't necessarily a problem. But targeted advertising based on our smartphone data have a real impact on livelihood and well-being, beyond influencing purchasing habits.
Targeted advertising can also enable companies to discriminate against people and deny them an equal chance of accessing basic human rights, such as housing and employment. Targeted online advertising can completely exclude some people from information without them ever knowing. This is a particular problem because the internet and social media is now such a common source of information.
There is a similar risk with payment and shopping apps. In China, the government has announced plans to combine data about personal expenditure with official records, such as tax return and driving offences. When this system is fully operational, it will produce a social credit score that rates an individuals citizen's trustworthiness. These ratings can then be used to issue rewards or penalties, such as privileges in loan applications or limits on career progression.
It is impossible to anticipate and detect the full range of ways smartphone data is collected and used and to demonstrate the full scale of its impact. What we know could be just the beginning.