Suppose I or someone else vaguely connected with Blottr - or any other website you visit - told you that, as a matter of course, we harvest your address book to see who else is using the service, honestly don’t do anything else with the data but keep it on file for unspecified future purpose? I imagine you’d be pretty annoyed, and I do stress that’s a fictional example, neither Blottr nor any other site for which I work for does any such thing. But in this example, once you’d started talking about lawyers (as well you might), suppose I said that at least we were telling you about it - unlike so many smartphone apps which do it anyway?
By this time you’re getting a little cynical and wondering whether any apps and more particularly their owner companies do any of this. And the answer, I say with some regret, is yes they do. Twitter in particular has admitted that its app on the phone platform does precisely that, takes a snapshot of your entire address book when you click on “find friends”. Two congressmen have written to Apple to ask why this is allowed to happen when it appears to contravene the terms and conditions in the iTunes store.
The truth is that if you hit “find friends” on any app - or even a website which was asking to use this information from years ago (I remember alerting all of my contacts to the fact that I was using Plaxo when it first came out, to the consternation of many who had unfounded fears that their information would be sold) there’s just about one way that can work. It looks at your contacts and compares them with its records.
This is common sense, but it’s common sense which bypasses a lot of the modern users. Think about it a second: how else could it work? Facebook is another company whose apps do this, although the company does this only after clarifying to users that they’re going to be uploading their private data.
Many people will consider this clarification good business sense. Some will instead think it’s talking down to the user, thinking of them as an idiot - ‘you want us to check for your friends, you’ve asked us to check for your friends, you do understand we have to look at your list of friends?’ - this could seem based on the assumption that people are basically thick.
OK, I’ll say it. Not all people are technically literate. This doesn’t mean they’re thick, they simply might not have thought this through. A computer and its apps are things they use, not things they investigate and understand. It’s not part of their world and there’s no reason it should be.
These apps weren’t developed by people with this sort of sensibility of course. They were developed by people who are arguably blinkered in another way. When Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook said a couple of years ago that the age of privacy was over he wasn’t being provocative, he was saying something that seemed perfectly natural and reasonable to him. It just came out without the ordinary-people-common-sense filter being applied first. It didn’t occur to him that it wasn’t obvious.
This is because the electronic world - an increasingly dominant part of the way we live - is dominated by companies built up by what we might call Geeks, or some sort of equivalent that doesn’t sound pejorative. Maybe we could call them ‘boffins’. But they don’t necessarily understand that everyone hasn’t bought into the way they operate and the way they perceive the world just yet, and some people never will. The rise of Facebook, Twitter et al has meant increased hires of professional business people to expand on the skills and capabilities of the original founders but issues like the data harvesting suggest that they’re not quite there yet.
I don’t believe the people harvesting address book data through smartphone apps have any bad intentions. I’m not sure why they need to keep the data they use for “find my friends” functions. I do think the founders of these social media giants need to find more ways of speaking comprehensibly to people who don’t share their vision and understand where they’re coming from - or we can expect a lot more alarmist coverage over privacy and other issues in the future.