The global number of smartphone users is forecasted to grow from 1.5 billion in 2014 to around 2.5 billion in 2019, with smartphone penetration rates increasing accordingly. In 2011 about 10% of the world’s population used a smartphone, this number increased to more than 25% in 2015 and is projected to go up to over 36% in 2018. In Western Europe and North America approx. two third of the total population are expected to own a smartphone by 2017. The smallest regional market for smartphones is (still) the Middle East and Africa, where smartphone penetration will stand at an approx. 14% by 2017. Some sources report even much higher values for total numbers and global penetration rates of smartphones (compare besides others: http://www.pewglobal.org/2016/02/22/smartphone-ownership-and-internet-usage-continues-to-climb-in-emerging-economies/).
Smartphones are increasingly popular because they enable their users to access and utilize a number of useful and popular features and services, e.g. make phone or video calls, send and receive text messages, take/watch/exchange photos, record/watch/exchange videos, listen to music, store personal information (such as notes, photos, videos, …), connect with friends in Social Networks and share information with them, place orders or sell goods in the internet, access news and research information in the Internet, perform banking transactions or travel planning, book tickets for subway/railway/airway or book rental cars, and so on …
Modern smartphones are able to provide their users this high level of comfort, because they are packed with many powerful sensors, which enable the smartphone to collect data about you, your current situation and your behavior – in addition to the information you (voluntarily or involuntarily) store on your smartphone and the information you leave, while utilizing internet services. In fact, smartphones contain more sensors than most people would ever imagine. Android phones and iPhones usually include an audio sensor (microphone), image sensor (camera), touch sensor (screen), acceleration sensor (tri-axial accelerometer), light sensor, proximity sensor, and several sensors (including the Global Positioning System) for establishing location or measuring your health status (e.g. your pulse or your blood pressure in combination with smartwatches).
A typical person’s smartphone provides enough information to construct a virtual clone of that individual, which allows analysis of his/her behavior in the past and predictions of his/her behavior in the present and future – e.g. with regard to shopping or political preferences. Smartphones are the windows not just into our personal lives but they are equally the windows into our professional lives. Are you sure that the head of your Research&Development department or other key staff members are not blackmailed by hackers on behalf of your major competitor? Really? Your key staff members certainly provide sufficient contact surface for blackmailing – as everybody of us does (at least when facts about you are intentionally misinterpreted or manipulated).
According to Apple CEO Tim Cook there is probably more information about you on your smartphone, than there is in your house. This includes intimate conversations, calls made and received, text messages, photos, videos, contact lists, calendar entries, internet browsing history and personal notes, as well as financial and health data, food preferences, medication addiction, user-IDs and passwords to access to your e-mail or banking accounts and websites like Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and Netflix (to mention only the rather unsuspicious). Your smartphone knows, where you (or your kids) are located at the moment and what you are doing there, e.g. walking, jogging, shopping, climbing stairs, sitting, standing, and lying down. Wiretapping can be performed utilizing your smartphone as well as video surveillance of you and your environment.
This is already frightening enough, but it becomes even more frightening, if you consider, that this kind of information can be combined with information from other data sources to make you and your life even more transparent – even retroactively utilizing e.g. historical movement profiles, which can be extracted from the information stored in the networks of mobile providers.
A rather advantageous example to illustrate this effect resulting from the combination of information could be the following: In case of a criminal (terrorist) attack with a knife or ax, the police authorities are able to match e.g. the following information:
- Which smartphones have been logged into the radio cell of the mobile networks around the site of crime when the crime happened and in course of the weeks before the crime happened (to explore and prepare the crime)?
- Who are the individuals to whom these smartphones belong to?
- Which individuals living in the city/county/country already showed conspicuous or aggressive behavior in the past and are officially registered in corresponding police data bases?
- Which individuals had most recently mental problems (e.g. by analyzing the purchasing information for respective medicine or the membership information of self-help groups or forums)?
- Which individuals bought most recently knifes or axes in the internet or in a shop utilizing their credit card?
If terrorists can get caught by this kind of analysis, fine, but what, if all of the aforementioned criteria accidentally apply to you, but you are by no means involved into the crime? And what happens if the information about this temporary suspicions doesn’t get deleted after the suspicion has been smoothed out? What, if intentionally or unintentionally this information becomes public? It would certainly fundamentally affect you life, don’t you think so?
This (constructed) example sounds rather harmless, however the world is unfortunately full of begrudging characters, who do not always want your best, and you don’t have to think of totalitarian states, to recognize, that government surveillance in this context can be a big threat even for innocent citizens. Data mining of information gathered by video observation in combination with face recognition, biometrical identification (e.g. via fingerprint), movement profiles, and credit card transactions allow the total control of any individual and smartphones are an important tessera for these purposes.
The next level of total control will be possible, if governments and central banks will abolish money in cash, so that payments can only be done electronically (Sweden made already big steps into this direction) and, guess what, your smartphone in combination with electronic payment systems will be the device of choice to gather the necessary information.
George Orwell in his novel „1984“ and Aldous Huxley in his „Brave new world“ already provided us 70 to 85 years ago with menacing impressions, how the world in societies under total control of the government could look like. I guess neither George Orwell, nor Aldous Huxley, had any idea how rapidly and to what extent the technical prerequisites for total control would evolve.
The threat comes on the one hand from criminals, who e.g. want to steal your money or intellectual property from your company, but as well from enterprises, who want to sell more goods and service by leading people into temptation. Last but not least government surveillance from my point of view may even be the biggest threat for the privacy and freedom of people, since government agencies, such as NSA or CIA, are provided with billions of USD to develop the necessary espionage capabilities under the pretense of „war against terror“. A good friend of mine said some years ago: „If something can be misused, it will sooner or later be misused“ – an this is unfortunately true.
In today’s digital world it is almost impossible, to elude yourself from these threats, if you don’t want to spend the rest of your life as hermit on a lonesome island or farm. Consequently it is even more important that you are aware of the potential threads and adjust your behavior to leave as little digital traces as possible. Building up this awareness was the major purpose of this little article.