New social apps pushing privacy boundaries

Emergence of mobile apps with social media elements pushing boundaries of user privacy, say industry analysts, who note debate will be increasingly contradictory as such tools gain wider acceptance.
Written by Jason Ng on

The increasing penetration of both smartphones and social networks will drive the emergence of mobile apps that integrate social media elements. This amalgamtion of trends will further push the boundaries of user privacy even as its definition has yet to be clearly defined, note industry watchers.

Color, for instance, is a free location-based mobile app that allows users to capture view the content on other devices which are within close proximity. Available on the Apple iPhone and Android devices, the app enables users to take a photo or video which is stored on their device and accessible by other Color users who are within a 150 feet-radius.

Users who wish to keep certain photos private should not access the device's camera via the Color app so that these images will remain out of the shared album. According to the app developer, users can delete content they created and block other users by clicking on their profile picture and selecting "hide". Blocked users will not be able to view photos taken by both parties.

Touting itself as "social networking for a post-PC world", Color last month raised US$41 million in funding from various investors including Bain Capital Ventures and Silicon Valley Bank.

With mobile apps such as Color now integrating social media components, how far will this emerging trend stretch the boundaries of user privacy?

Jake Saunders, vice president of forecasting at ABI Research, thinks so. "Technology empowers applications and many of these new applications have very open, versatile uses. When you combine that with a very large target audience, social media networks are going to push the boundaries of privacy."

Shalini Vermam, principal research analyst at Gartner, added that social networking sites are already stretching the limits of user privacy since large amounts of information and personal content are increasingly stored on these platforms.

Privacy by which definition
Others, however, note that acceptable user privacy levels have yet to be properly defined and even then, there will be differing views on what these should be.

Kiranjeet Kaur, an analyst at IDC, explained: "There is no clear boundary set by 'social police' on how private should privacy be. The debate against privacy boundaries defined by these [social networking] tools will continue to get contradicted by the massive popularity and acceptance of these tools."

Jayesh Easwaramony, Asia-Pacific vice president of ICT Practice at Frost & Sullivan, added that as generations evolve, the definition of privacy is increasingly blurred with technological advances and changes in user perception. He noted that today, online users are already posting personal data such as phone numbers and photos on social networking sites.

"If the user is willing to share data, then it is ethical as long as the terms and conditions are transparent and sufficient care is taken in the education of the user," said Easwaramony, who described Color as a "high-tech conversation icebreaker" because it enables people to strike up a dialogue by clicking a photo.

Kaur added that social networks are open forums which anyone is free to decide if they want to join and share information.

Verma also noted that what is considered privacy infringement in one country may not be so in another so it is difficult to generalize. However, he noted that negative public reaction and responses from security agencies will spur regulatory and government bodies to look more closely into application-level privacy issues.

Watchdog can provide app guidance
Analysts were also divided when asked if the establishment of an industry watchdog was necessary to govern and police user privacy.

Verma supported the need for one, noting that an industry watchdog should be set up to regulate and monitor consumer privacy issues. "At the very least, the agency needs to spell out what amounts to an infringement of consumer privacy. This will help app developers know their limits before they launch an application in a country."

"However, this may cause complexities for appstore providers that offer the same set of content and apps across regions and countries," he noted. "Over time, some standardization of privacy laws should ideally make life easier for appstores and app developers."

ABI's Saunders added that while regulatory bodies should enforce a greater level of privacy protection, it would be challenging to do so as social media applications are Web-based and most do not require an in-country service provider to operate.

"Ultimately, end-users have to be responsible for their own privacy," he said.

Kaur added that an industry watchdog would ensure a user's private information is not shared with third parties if he explicitly objected such usage.

Easwaramony, though, called for the need to heighten awareness among consumers across all generations, rather than establish an industry watchdog. User awareness is especially important as consumers of all ages, including minors who are technically literate, now have easy access to a computer and apps are able to sign up for accounts on social media sites.

Facebook, for instance, allows anyone aged 13 and above to create an account on the social networking site. Color also states that its target audience comprises consumers aged 13 years and older.

ZDNet Asia spoke to social network users such as Stephanie Liew, who agreed that apps that have social media elements such as Color were pushing the boundaries of their online privacy. Liew, a Brunei-based IT executive and active social media user, added: "I don't think I will use this app since it really infringes on my personal life."

Melbourne-based journalist and social media user, Natalie Puchalski, said: "I personally don't like the idea of my personal photos being made publicly available. I already have photos on social networking sites where I am able to restrict who sees them. Also, I don't really have a need to see photos of other people I don't know so having this application would be pointless to me."

Marketing platform for businesses
Apps such as Color, however, can prove a useful, and free, publicity tool for businesses to broadcast viral promotional and advertising apparatus to consumers within the vicinity of their retail stores, for instance.

Easwaramony noted that businesses could use such apps as a way to boost purchases and cultivate a "viral purchasing behavior".

Saunders agreed. A restaurant owner, for example, can offer a 20 percent discount on Hawaiian pizzas by taking a picture of the pizza and tagging it with geocodes, to specify location details. This can then be sent out to Color users within the vicinity, who can patronize the restaurant and present the photo to enjoy the discount, he said.

He added that this application is a novel way to conduct business and noted that more unexpected social media applications will likely surface in future.

Kaur added: "We do see an interest from developers and users, likewise, for applications using location-based services.

"Although many applications may be targeted at niche segments, only a few would gain mass popularity to reach the scale close to the likes of Facebook and Twitter."

According to Easwaramony, social apps are still in their early days. Over 50 percent of social network users currently access such tools via their mobile phones, he said, adding that this number is expected to climb to 75 percent in the next two years as smartphone penetration continues to increase.

"We will see more contextual applications that link location, social network, mobility and personalization," he said.


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