The continual drip-drip-drop of NSA secrets, courtesy of Monsieur Snowden, has provided many of us with a new piece of daily entertainment. But as much fun as it can be to see No Such Agency’s dirty laundry being aired in public, it has a real and lasting affect on how consumers are going to see interacting with their mobile devices. Specifically, it could provide a major setback to the new universe of applications that use crowdsourced data.
There are lots of examples of highly successful apps that are essentially just aggregations of user-provided data. Yelp comes to mind immediately, but another good example is Waze. In both cases, users are providing the service with some fairly private information, where and when they were at a particular location. Waze is even more sensitive, because it is also recording your speed, which might be a bit higher than the posted limits.
Just a few years ago, we would assume that such data was relatively safe and private. But thanks to the NSA’s wholesale om-nom-noming of the Internet’s data, people’s attitudes have rapidly changed. The assumption now is that any data being sent to a corporation is somehow ending up in the hands of the government. It is a measure of the level to which this distrust has reached that when Apple announced a fingerprint scanner, the first comment people made was that now the NSA would have our fingerprints too.
In another example, it was recently discovered that the city of New York was using EzPass transponders to track downtown traffic levels. Again, the first assumption made was that the data would also be used to keep tabs on the movements of individuals.
In the past, I would have dismissed such concerns as the fantasies of the overly paranoid. But the recent revelations of how deeply the government has been peering into people’s lives makes anything suspect. That means that any application that tracks user behaviors, even if the benefit is better traffic reports or more accurate restaurant reviews, is going to be viewed through NSA-colored glasses.
In short, the NSA has poisoned the well for anyone who wants to crowdsource mobile data. From now on, the first question anyone asks is going to be “how are you keeping my data private.” Maybe that’s a good question that people should have been asking all along. But proving that the NSA can’t access your data, especially when you can’t talk about it if they can, is essentially trying to prove a negative.