Apps and privacy is a subject we return to time and time again. In the past year alone, we've seen headlines about a Russian-owned face-morphing app that also collects your metadata, a mainstream messaging app that was hacked to allow the theft of a high-profile target user, and well-intentioned track and trace applications designed to control the spread of a disease. And the current TikTok controversy over how the mobile video platform is sharing the massive amount of user data it collects is no exception.
The challenge, however, is that we as consumers are not responding to these privacy problems effectively. All of the cases above have something in common: They are the tip of an iceberg we only address when other concerning attributes draw our concern. The media likely wouldn't have discussed FaceApp in as much detail if it wasn't owned by a Russian company. WhatsApp's failure to address critical vulnerabilities wouldn't have made headlines if Jeff Bezos hadn't been hacked. Track and trace apps wouldn't be so controversial if government agencies weren't pushing them with such urgency due to the pandemic.
Now the topic of the day is TikTok. Would we even be talking about it if it wasn't Chinese?
While all these drivers are legitimate concerns — we should express concern when a nation-state owns an application that is harvesting huge amounts of sensitive data — our focus on these factors conveniently bypasses the true problem. Applications are becoming increasingly more intrusive and we are surrendering our data ever more willingly without understanding the potential ramifications that will ripple far into the future. Once our data has been leaked, it is out there and we can't ask nicely to please have it back. That means if data we once thought was innocuous suddenly changes into something dangerous, perhaps because of a new piece of technology or a change to how we use data, then you are already at a disadvantage.
Banning apps based solely on their country of origin (no matter how hostile) is not going to solve this problem; it is merely a Band-Aid that won't fully address all privacy and security concerns.
We need to address the underlying problem, take a hard look at what data our applications are collecting, and focus on improving privacy controls. We could throw a dart at a list of apps in most app stores and almost be guaranteed to hit one with some form of privacy issue. This can't be a purely legislative problem, although legislation can be a great tool to steer and accelerate things in the right direction.
Ultimately, we need to find a technological and sociological solution, taking the following into account:
- We need to be more privacy-conscious: Why does this app need our data? What is it doing with it? What control over it do we have? Is there a way we can revoke that control? Is there a way we can purge the data they hold? What happens to our data if another company buys the app or it goes bust? If we don't know the answers to any of the above questions or have any concerns, we should delete or not install the app. It is just not worth the risk.
- We need to be minimalistic: Companies should build technology that only uses the data it needs and anonymize that data whenever possible. They should also be good data stewards and refrain from hanging onto data they don't need "just in case."
- We need to create and enforce legislative and economic controls: Companies that abuse the trust consumers give to them need to pay for that abuse. This has to be done carefully so as not to stifle innovation, but it will be a mandatory part of an effective strategy.
Finally, we need to focus on the elephant in the room, not just the most shocking attributes of privacy issues that catch our attention. There are just as many worrying applications like TikTok in our own home market made by our own manufacturers. While they don't necessarily directly represent a national security threat in the same way as TikTok or FaceApp, they pose their own problems.
WhatsApp having access to all Jeff Bezos' data is a great example: Imagine if the target was a politician or a law enforcement official? Let's focus on making data privacy a reality for everyone, all the time. Privacy by design is the goal we should all be aiming for.