Honey, I know what you did last night
Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
That smartphones have taken over our lives in insidious ways is now apparent. Everything about you is now out there for the world to see.
First Published: Sat, Apr 15 2017. 11 23 PM IST
I secede. I hereby declare myself an independent nation.I oppose the banana republic led by President Smart PhoneAnd all Apps elected by this Dictator
That in place, allow me place into perspective why it’s time to take a hard look at what is ostensibly a smart device. While it sure is designed, and marketed, as a tool to make life easier, the fact is that it subtracts, pries everything open and erodes our self-worth. If you think it ridiculous, allow me make a few submissions.
Submission #1: Smartphones make us sitting ducks
I stumbled across a few elegant lines of code publicly available on GitHub, a place where software developers from across the world come to develop code, share, help and learn from each other.
It was there that I discovered that the ubiquitous 140 characters composed to post a tweet contains metadata that, to the trained eye, can reveal at least 20 times more than we originally intend to communicate. Allow me to illustrate this.
I asked a friend to help me parse through this code and make sense of it. He keeps a low profile, writes high-end software, is a software security consultant for large corporations and all credit for helping decode the information here goes to him. He declined he be credited though because the code is in the public domain and insists he only unpacked it.
The first time I asked him to help me run the software, it was a few months ago. We ran it on a few social media handles, mine included. To say the very least, the information it contained was damning. For instance, in under a few minutes, just my Twitter handle threw this up:
• I carry an iPhone with me to access Twitter the most.
• Oftentimes, I use Twitter on my browser.
• I have a third-party app called Tweetbot installed and it exists on two computers—both of which belong to me and run on the Mac operating system.
• I have allowed SquareSpace, an entity that hosts my personal domain, charlesassisi.com and charlesassisi.net, to access my Twitter handle.
• I have automated IFTTT recipes running in the background to run automated tweets on themes I think pertinent—it makes my life easier so I can be visible on social media at just the right times.
My friend, though, told he thinks it is a bad idea to allow any third-party app to access my personal account. He also told me he does not access any apps, social media, finance related, banking, and everything else we take for granted, on his mobile device. “Most people don’t realize it. But these apps can be used to build intimately personal profiles of people without their even knowing it,” he told me.
Since then, I have denied TweetBot, Squarespace and IFTTT access to my Twitter handle. At the time of writing this piece, pretty much all traces of tweets from these apps have disappeared. It now appears only from Twitter’s native app that resides on my phone and laptop. But that alone is enough to tell the world heck of a lot about me.
So how much can you get to know about someone if you want to? By way of example, let’s consider a very prominent figure whom most Indians know of. Five months ago, when the both of us first parsed through the data, my friend and I looked at the Twitter handles of a few prominent people. Voyeurism took over, I was beginning to get greedy, and had to be held back. But just that to illustrate what is possible, allow me point out to the Twitter handle of a very prominent Indian citizen most of us have heard of.
When my friend and I first looked up handle five months ago, at first look, in under a few minutes the data suggested the man was tense. And how did we know that? I don’t intend to reproduce all of what we could see, but only offer a snippet of what was in full public view based on his last 1,000 tweets.
• He was keeping late hours—on average hitting bed well past 1.00am in the morning—and was on the phone by 7.00am. His mind was occupied by other organizational issues as well. I think it would be imprudent to put out in public domain what we could see.
• We could also see he was travelling quite a bit and which part of the country he was in on any given day. This was on the back of data that originated from the telecom tower his phone had latched on to and was embedded in his tweet.
• While on the road, that things weren’t good at home was obvious. His mother’s health was playing at the back of his mind. That he had exchanged a few tweets around that with friends popped up.
• The movie Udta Punjab had gotten his attention—he thought it pertinent and one everybody ought to watch. He was recommending it strongly as well. He was keen to meet the movie makers.
But five months is a long time. At the time of writing this, we now know some things have changed.
• He is more relaxed and is sleeping longer hours.
• The happenings within his organization are not at the top of the mind for him right now. It has taken a back seat and he is letting his advisers do all of the heavy lifting.
• Instead, he is closely following all of the news around what is happening post the Rio 2016 Olympics and wants to know all about the Paralympics.
• He is spending a lot of time on Facebook and YouTube as well.
• He continues to remain concerned about his mother and isn’t travelling as much.
• He is now reading opinion pieces on English dailies that are known to take an anti-establishment stance.
Without “hacking”, I can drill a few layers deeper and tell you what device he uses, what titles he is reading, what articles get his attention, whom is he interacting with—all this based on just the Twitter metadata.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. If I extrapolate this data with what can be gathered from his Facebook feed, I can nail him down even more. What I think of Facebook is something I have articulated earlier in this series. I only a caveat to file.
Back then, I had unambiguously stated Facebook is evil. But that was too broad a statement. I stand corrected. Any technology is only as good or as evil as you allow it to be. Come to think about it, is nuclear energy good? Yes, when deployed right. Evil, when deployed wrong. But who is to decide what is good and what is evil? Who gets to draw the lines? Where do the lines blur?
Having said that, there is no taking away that between Twitter, Facebook and that all pervasive Whatsapp, you can’t run, hide, or lie. Not just from governments, but from pretty much anybody, anywhere—most of which has been meticulously documented by Salim Virani, an entrepreneur, educator and writer.
If these apps are on your device, even someone like me with no formal education in the computer sciences can track you down to within 200m of where you are, whom are you with, what you are watching and how you got there, as well as approximate or discover when you will get out, what you are possibly eating, what you are reading and figure out what is playing on your mind.
Submission #2: It’s erodes our self-worth
This wasn’t something I had thought of until my former colleague and friend Peter Griffin put it in as many words. More popularly known as @zigzackly on Twitter, he is now with The Hindu in Mumbai and was one of the earliest people on social media, “before social media was called social media”, as he ruefully puts it.
To most people, Peter comes across as an oddball because he refuses to carry a smartphone, does not take calls from numbers he doesn’t recognize and is not available 24x7 like most people.
“What phone do you now carry?” I asked of him the other day.
“It’s some old Samsung phone. No idea what model it is. I wish it didn’t have a camera. But when I was looking for replacement after my old one broke, turns out there are no more phones available in the market without cameras,” he said. For somebody who is widely popular on social media and was among the earliest adopters of the Internet in India, he refuses to carry a smartphone.
“Because in my world, a phone is a device to make and receive calls and nothing else. It isn’t intended to intrude into my personal space and time much like I don’t into anybody else’s,” he maintains.
In my earlier avatar, when the both of us were colleagues, often times we’d get into massive arguments because he was unavailable when I thought I needed to discuss something with him right away. His riposte was consistent. If I thought it important and he was unavailable on the phone, I ought to either text or leave a voice message for him. And that he ought to be flogged only if the task on hand wasn’t accomplished within the boundaries a deadline imposed.
In hindsight, he’s got a point. Because for all of what I thought were idiosyncrasies, Peter met all of his deadlines, however punishing, without ever compromising on his personal time.
“And what happens if there is an important call coming in from a number you don’t recognize?” I’d ask him then and I asked him as recently as last week.
“That’s what my voice mail is for,” was and continues to be his stock response. “If people respect me, they’ll leave a message and I’ll get back. If they don’t leave one, it demonstrates they either don’t understand my message or that I am not important to them. Why waste time and energy on then?” he asks. He added that he rarely accepts cold calls, unless he knows them well. On his part, he rarely cold calls anybody. Instead, he first emails or sends in a text to check first what is an appropriate time to call before he does.
It took me a while to understand what he was trying to say is as simple as “Respect my time in much the same way I respect yours.”
This message was driven home hard a few weeks ago when one of my counterparts at Founding Fuel mandated I turn all alerts off and pay attention to him. He said it was beyond his comprehension why I had to check my phone each time it pinged. And that my doing it indicated my disrespect of both him and the work he has put into presenting something before the team and his time.
I first thought he was overreacting to what seemed like routine behaviour on everyone’s part to me. But darned right he is. My being distracted by a device is an affront to him and he is well within his right to make it known to me. I have since apologized and have taken it upon myself to block all distractions. I must confess it isn’t easy.
Among the first things I tried is switch my phone from colour to grayscale. The impact was dramatic. Almost suddenly, the device started to look boring. Studies indicate that, when turned into this mode, we are less tempted to look at it every other minute and focus instead at the task at hand or the person seated next to you.
Not just that, this reduces our exposure to blue light from screens. Study after study has demonstrated blue light interferes with the melatonin that we need so much if we are to sleep well.
Taking a leaf out of Peter’s book, for some time now, I have made it a point not to look at any of my phone or email until a certain hour in the morning every day. The kind of space it has gives me to be with myself is remarkable and I am enjoying every moment of it.
A tool I am in love with now is Slack. This is a group messaging app and available for all platforms. It works well particularly well at the workplace by allowing seamless collaboration within various teams in the organization. The interface is clean and I prefer it over WhatsApp.
The latter is a bit like going to a casino when drunk. Once in there, you can’t get out. Too many people you know out there sending and receiving jokes and sharing trivia when you don’t have the bandwidth to deal with it. What I need instead is something to stay connected to colleagues at work with—period. At times, email is an overload and Slack alerts me only when my attention is called for from just the right team.
What it also means is that the propensity to check the damn phone often for apparently important email goes down right away. In fact, it leaves you with no reason to look at your phone every other minute because this piece of software has notifications built into it to alert you of messages that may need your attention right away.
Perhaps I am not the only one. There seems to be a movement building up. What else explains the quiet rise of Nokia? Remember the iconic Nokia 3310? The Finnish handset manufacturer has announced it will relaunch the phone this year and is open for pre-orders—and apparently, has a lot many people waiting with bated breath.
Incidentally, if you may want to make a killing, here’s a pointer. The device is a considered a collectible in the Western world and sell at huge premiums. But most local vendors in India have refurbished versions of the phone available at dirt cheap prices.
Charles Assisi is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, a digitally led media and learning platform for entrepreneurs. He tweets on @c_assisi
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