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Home > News > Mobile phones, secret identities and data as the new oil: an interview with Geoff White

Mobile phones, secret identities and data as the new oil: an interview with Geoff White

14 September 2016 |

Award-winning television news journalist, Geoff White, was the keynote speaker at our second Business Network event ‘The Internet of Us: what does privacy mean in the Digital Age’ on 1st September. Geoff’s journalism focuses on tech security, personal data, privacy and e-crime, working with Channel 4. As the co-creator of ‘The Secret Life of Your Mobile Phone’, his fascinating talk gave insight into the data we beam out into the world without realising it.

We caught up with him after the event to talk about the implications of privacy, and to get some of his expert tips for being smarter with our online identities.

Hi Geoff. Let’s dive straight in: there’s a lot of paranoia around mobile phones being tracked, are there any positives?

Yes, of course – from making maps work on your phone, to location filtered google results, there’s plenty of great things that mobile phones can do while being tracked. But people need to be smarter about data – they should give it away when it suits them, but not unwittingly. We ought to pick and choose when our data is used so it works for us, not for the benefit of others.

What can be done to increase awareness of how phone data is being harvested? Do the media do enough at the moment?

Technology is difficult to cover because there’s always the question of how we represent the victim, but I don’t think the media necessarily do as much as it could. We got around this problem at Channel 4 by creating our own victim, a fictitious personality whose data we exploited to show how it can happen to anyone.

Every now and then, companies do something that crosses a boundary resulting in people getting upset, and the media do pick up on it. But while I think the media need to do more, I also believe that people need to do more to draw their own boundaries on their own privacy. The ‘hands up, it’s all over’ approach doesn’t strike me as a very smart way to approach our own data. We need to take charge.

What are the practical steps we can take to protect ourselves better online?

Switch off Wi-Fi when you’re not using it, and switch off mobile data when you’re not using it if you can. We’re told data is the new oil – if it’s that valuable, why do we give it away for free?

If the majority of us have got nothing to hide, what’s the problem with our data being harvested? Targeted advertising is irritating, but is it insidious?

I know some would say if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, but what we’ve found is when we’ve done stories and we’ve put information we’ve found up on the screen, that’s the moment people realise actually, they don’t want it out in the public sphere. There are vast amounts of our lives that although we wouldn’t actively hide, the idea of it becoming public is not good either.

While targeted advertising might not be terrible, at the moment we don’t get a say in the matter. For example, if you buy a present for your partner, that present might follow you round the internet for the next week. What if your partner sees and the surprise is ruined? It’s nonsensical that we don’t get the option to opt out.

How do you see attitudes towards privacy changing over the next few years – more of the same or greater privacy-consciousness amongst users?

We have some new EU rules coming in, which the experts think will be in place regardless of Brexit. These rules say your data belongs to you – if you give it to someone, you should be able to take it back, if you give it to someone it should be for a purpose, and they can’t hold it for longer than they say they will. What will be interesting is if smart companies use this as a selling point – by saying ‘we really respect your data, here’s what we’re going to do with it’.

What easy-to-use tools can we use to see what information we’re giving out? Or are there no easy ways to balance the information asymmetry?

On laptop and desktop there are tools, for example a browser called Tor. Tor is often associated with the dark web, but it can be used to access any website, if you want to be extra conscious of how your internet is being tracked. Tor gets rid of cookies, prevents tracking, routes your traffic different ways around the internet and disables JavaScript. Unfortunately, it’s much harder to do it on mobiles, as the software isn’t as well-developed yet.

Facebook advocates using your real name and therefore your own identity. Where do you stand on this? Should we have the right to present ourselves differently, or secretly, online? 

There’s a fantastic bit in the Facebook terms and conditions that says: ‘Pretending to be anything or anyone isn’t allowed.’ But I look at my Facebook feed and it’s clear we’re all pretending all the time. I think it’s sad that we’ve lost one of the most wonderful things that came into being when the internet was first used – the sense of liberation and the idea that you could be anyone. But there’s a tough economic reason behind Facebook’s policy. It’s hard to advertise to people if you don’t know who they are.

I think this policy also comes from a very liberal Californian way of thinking, where they are lucky enough that everyone can be who they want to be. As a result, Facebook doesn’t take into consideration the people who want – or need – to be different online, for their work, for their happiness, or even for their safety.

Do we have to accept that getting free access to services means we have to give something in return? Should we have to pay to take back control over our personal data?

It’s definitely fair to say we’ve got used to all the benefits of these free services. For example, in the old days you’d have had to buy lots of software to do what Facebook does free of charge. That’s why I think it’s natural that we have to be advertised to make up for the free service we receive.

What worries me is that advertising is not effective. It doesn’t take into account that all users are consumers and need to buy things, and it should be an equal exchange of information. There are much more honest ways of going about it – imagine if I could tell Facebook I needed a new pair of shoes, and then it gave me lots of options within an agreed timeframe? Instead, we have a situation where I see a pair of shoes I’ve already looked at on every webpage I open. I’ve either already bought them or decided I didn’t want them – it’s not a particularly innovative way to increase sales.

What do you think the public’s attitude to privacy will look like in the next 20 years?

Hopefully we will see an honest exchange between people and companies in the future. If the customisation and personal service we currently get from online services will extend to their use of our data – and we see the end of having to blindly accept terms and conditions – that would be great!


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The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.

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