Do mobile phones invade our privacy?

A report on the live spiked-debate.

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

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On 20 July 2005, spiked organised a seminar in central London entitled ‘Mobile society: Do mobile phones invade our privacy?’. The seminar was sponsored by the mobile service provider O2 and hosted by IBM, and accompanied the current spiked/O2 online debate on the same theme.

The seminar was chaired by spiked‘s commissioning editor Jennie Bristow. Five speakers gave introductions outlining their thoughts on the subject, after which the discussion was opened up to comments and questions from the audience. The audience included representatives of the mobile phone and internet industries, policymakers, academics, and spiked readers.

Richard Brown, head of public affairs at O2, kicked off proceedings by explaining that O2 is keen to understand the social dimensions of the mobile phone, particularly given how personal these devices have become – ‘almost a prosthetic limb’, according to Brown. He was interested to know whether our definition of privacy extends to cover the sense of intrusion that some people feel when others in the vicinity are using mobiles. And he asked whether the general public is particularly concerned about privacy, or whether such concerns are more particular to those with a professional interest in the issue.

Ross Anderson, chair of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, followed, arguing that many security issues have to do with incentives rather than with technology proper. He talked us through an experiment that he and his colleagues recently conducted, in order to discover the value that students place upon their mobile phone data. It transpired that the median value ascribed to this data was £10 a month if it were to be used for academic purposes, and £20 a month if it were to be used for commercial purposes. According to Anderson, government and policymakers tend to be slow and wrongheaded when dealing with technology, and market solutions to privacy issues may well work better.

James Woudhuysen, professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, spoke next, referring to UK home secretary Charles Clarke’s recent assertion that following the bombings in London, the authorities need to retain mobile phone data. Woudhuysen conceded that it would be impractical for the authorities to store and analyse such enormous quantities of data, but argued that retention by government was objectionable in principle in any case. Woudhuysen went on to criticise the regulation surrounding mobile phone technology, arguing that the popular conception that regulation is struggling to keep up with new technology is misguided, and that in truth technological innovation is struggling in the face of overregulation.

Hamish MacLeod of the Mobile Broadband Group, began by asserting that since a mobile phone is an inanimate object, it cannot invade our privacy – only people can invade our privacy. He argued that the legal frameworks regulating the retention and use of mobile phone data – by the state in relation to citizens, by companies in relation to consumers, and by employers in relation to employees – are effective, and that abuses of privacy are the exception rather than the rule. He did, however, express concern over the malign uses to which people allegedly put their mobile phones, and he gave the example of happy slapping.

Susanne Lace, senior policy officer at the National Consumer Council, said that the reaction to the London bombings illustrated how dependent upon mobile phones people have become, and that despite the negative aspects of mobiles, people wouldn’t want to do without them. However, she argued that the prospective growth in mobile commerce would lead to an increase in the amount of data generated by mobile users, and a concomitant increase in privacy concerns. According to Lace, the economy developing around mobile phone data lacks transparency, and companies need to work in partnership with one another and with consumers in order to retain consumers’ trust.

In the wide-ranging discussion that followed, members of the panel and the audience discussed threats to privacy from government, commercial organisations, and the general public, and debated about how these differ from one another. Some participants in the discussion favoured regulation, while others questioned the assumption that the state acts benevolently in our interest. Ross Anderson admitted that he has long since exchanged access to all of his mobile phone data for free mobile phone use, as part of a long-running research project in which he is a subject. He said that if, hypothetically, he wanted to use a mobile for a particular purpose and didn’t want the relevant data to be monitored, he would simply procure a new pay-as-you-go phone.

There was also discussion of camera phones, and of the widely shown mobile phone footage of the London bombings. There was disagreement over whether the current enthusiasm for camera phones, particularly in the context of disaster, reveals a general voyeurism and ghoulishness in people, or whether such tendencies stem more from disengagement and narcissism.

Representatives of child protection organisations expressed their concern about the impact of mobile phone technology upon children, and the danger of children being ‘the canary in the coalmine’, if dangers are not addressed pre-emptively. Susanne Lace shared these concerns, but James Woudhuysen thought that the impression given – of ruthless companies preying upon children – was an unhelpful exaggeration, and didn’t do justice to the ability of parents to decide what their children should and should not have access to.

Richard Brown concluded the discussion, picking up on an analogy that had been made earlier, between companies sending mobile phone spam and collecting data on the one hand, and stacks of leaflets arriving through one’s letterbox on the other hand. Brown asked whether the post office should be implicated in the delivery of such leaflets, and, in a similar vein, what responsibility mobile service providers should bear for what companies and individuals do with mobile phones. ‘Where does the guardianship of privacy lie?’, he asked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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