Every tool used by humans can be used for good or evil. It is up to the individual to determine its use. Smartphones are some of the newer tools for modern living. Their longer-term implications for everyday use are as yet unknown. While we in the West, where I see this in Canada, take steps to preserve privacy, this is untrue in China. The Chinese government has turned the benign too of the smartphone into a personal tracking device for its own political purposes.
We should touch on the topic of what privacy has to do with our newish tool, the smartphone. We, not so long ago, had mobile phones. These phones, now disparagingly called flip phones by the younger crowd, functioned as a simple telephone but were mobile. Of course your mobile service provider needed to know your location in order to provide your telephone service. The newer smartphones do live up to their name. These are portable computers that not only act as phones but provide real-time data connectivity, and an ecosystem of apps that allows the owner to take photos, chat and other computing. Social media is very popular. It is no surprise that much of the data generated by this personal use is private, hence the need for country-wide privacy laws. Where we go, who we meet, what we buy and what we say are all private, and should only be shared with those that are involved or who have been given consent.
Smartphone popularity worldwide has become a near necessity of life, be it in Canada or China. As these devices are relatively inexpensive, they are easy to purchase for most people, thus contributing to their popularity and near universal use. In China, however, your need to provide personal ID in order to buy a SIM card and use the smartphone as a phone.
We in the West, and specifically here in Canada, have privacy advocates within our three levels of government, companies and individuals, this trichotomy tends to largely balance each other out, resulting in a somewhat happy medium. We have a Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, which is federal, as well as provincial privacy commissioners, for example Ontario. We also have Canada-wide privacy laws. While this is not perfect, government or companies that breach these laws are routinely investigated, charged, and reported in the press. These laws are not only for the people, but for all, which includes government and companies.
To a reader from Canada or even from a Western country, this trichotomy of government, companies and individuals, as well as privacy legislation at all levels of government is of no surprise. In fact, this is expected, as it should be. The government of China, on the other hand has gone in a completely different direction.
It is disturbing that China’s mobile host providers share their location data with the government and police. Person to person communications apps such as QQ and Wechat have not only shared private chat information with the government, but that merely being a member of a chat group can result in arrest, being charged with a crime and incarceration. There are new relationships with the company that provides Wechat and various provincial governments that now allow a Wechat account to act as ID for government social services. This tracking and sharing of data between smartphone service companies and the Chinese government should set off warnings to all users.
Electronic payment systems using smartphones have become prominent in China, to the detriment of cash. To something and make a payment means the payment system company knows your location.
China’s mobile phone companies are experimenting with a facial and voice recognition database, which has been used to successfully track and catch criminals. While this is good for law enforcement, there is no opt-out for the public. When you use Wechat or QQ to do a video call this data goes through the mobile provider’s network as well as the Wechat provider, either of which can store a copy of your conversations. If those conversations are not to the liking of the government, then they can use technology to track you down for arrest.
China has other non-technology means of tracking people. Each Chinese citizen has a personal identification registration, called a hukou 户口. All train and plane tickets require your personal ID number. All hotel stays require the same. With these non-technology methods it is much easier to keep track of the population, but this is not foolproof. There is a vast security camera network used by the police. Couple these non-tech methods with smartphone data and accuracy is sure to rise.
There are few options for Chinese who wish to opt out of this security environment. China has made illegal most of the popular Western apps that have privacy restrictions and encryption. These apps are routinely removed from app stores throughout the country. The sale of VPN and its use is now illegal. China has only 2 main mobile phone providers and with the Great Firewall of China, no other electronic means to find information outside the country.
If you carry a smartphone, even one that is turned off, your mobile provider knows your location. Take out the battery and there is a small backup battery that still communicates with your mobile provider. The only way to stop this unintended communication is to wrap your phone in aluminum foil or other means to shield it from radio communications.
The solution to personal tracking in China is to not use Smartphone technology at all, and this is truly a pity. Smartphones are a major leap of technology that can only get better with time, but owners need protection against the onslaught of privacy infringements. This protection needs to be enacted in the laws of a country. Unfortunately for China this is impossible.
Once in a while I read about Chinese netizens getting upset with privacy infringement, or an advocacy group speaks up. But really, there is nothing an individual citizen can do. When your government and private companies work together to share your data the cause is lost.
This is not to say that all is well in the West. Smartphone app writers are known to use psychology-based theory in order to make their apps more addictive. They use positive feedback at various times in order to provide users with a slight dopamine. Novelty bias, variable rewards and bottomless feeds are also used. Smartphone users of these apps are being psychologically addicted to their phones. The implications of these methods are as yet unknown, though the means of addiction are well known.
These companies have persuaded us to give over so much of our lives by exploiting a handful of human frailties. One of them is called novelty bias. It means our brains are suckers for the new. As the McGill neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explains, we’re wired this way to survive. In the infancy of our species, novelty bias kept us alert to dubious red berries and the growls of sabre-toothed tigers. But now it makes us twig helplessly to Facebook notifications and the buzz of incoming e-mail. That’s why social media apps nag you to turn notifications on. They know that once the icons start flashing onto your lock screen, you won’t be able to ignore them. It’s also why Facebook switched the colour of its notifications from a mild blue to attention-grabbing red. Your smartphone📱is making you👈 stupid, antisocial 🙅 and unhealthy 😷. So why can’t you put it down❔⁉️
Every tool from a simple stick to a smartphone can be used for good or evil. Where the smartphone takes humanity is unclear, but I hope that we can use this interesting technology for more good than evil.
If you are in China and have a smartphone, you are being location tracked. All your conversations using Wechat and QQ are being stored and can be used to jail you. There is a huge facial and voice recognition program in the works. But most Chinese netizens already know this.