Can I get control over my smartphone data

Update 15 January 2014 - Perhaps I can, apparently. Blackphone promises to give users control over their data.

The new Facebook phone will make it easier to collect data:

It’s going to know where you are, who you’re talking to and when, even what apps you’re running. All of which is great for Facebook, because ultimately Facebook wants to know every little thing it can about you so it can get you to click on some ads. (Wired)

Of course, this is not radically different from the way in which smartphones are already being used to collect information about their users. If you don’t want to be tracked, don’t use a smartphone. Also, don’t pay electronically (or supermarkets will know if you’re pregnant) and stay clear from social media.

At least, that used to be sensible advice – but not anymore. Whether you have a smartphone or not: everybody will be tracked.

In a world full of surveillance cameras, cameras on smartphones (and soon on the Google Glass) and drones equiped with cameras, microphones and other sensors that can observe you even in your private home, it’s impossible to escape being observed. Voice, speech and face recognition software will recognize you (for example, in stores). And data companies like Rapleaf will happily buy, merge and analyse such data to create an ever more detailed profile of you.

Even though this only underlines the futility of clinging to privacy, it would still be nice if there were a smartphone that would give you more control over your data.

Two initiatives may offer some hope. New operating systems for smartphones are introduced, including one from Mozilla, the ‘most trusted internet company for privacy’. And a Dutch company, FairPhone, is developing a smartphone ‘designed and produced with minimal harm to people and planet’. I emailed both to ask whether they will give users more control over their data.

I got a response from FairPhone – in fact, they were quite helpful. Don’t expect radical changes: the operating system will still determine what apps run on the phone and what kind of data they will be able to collect (e.g. location, addresses, websites visited) – with or without the user’s consent. In that respect, little changes. Still, FairPhone will give you a bit more control over your phone by allowing you to install an alternative operating system (e.g., Mozilla’s Firefox or, when available, Ubuntu). Also, they consider developing an app that explains to users what happens with their data.