Data is the latest currency

We are never far away from the Internet these days, even when on the move.Mobile Internet devices have long been part of our everyday lives. The younger generation in particular is constantly online. But should our children use the Internet, and should we let them?


Reality provided an answer to this question a long time ago. What society really needs is a new perspective. But what skills does the next generation need to find its way in the digital world?

It is essential that people know exactly what happens when they use their mobile devices. Smartphones, for example, are extremely diligent at collecting data, working in secret. Often without the user realising, they send reports to the manufacturer that include your personal information.

This development has created a very particular problem. On the one hand, the capabilities of modern devices meet the requirements of many users. On the other hand, their online activity is pretty much monitored as a result, turning them into an object of analysis. Without any action on their part, they supply data that helps others to earn money.

Irrespective of what you think of this practice, there should be at least a certain level of transparency about what is going on in the background and what degree of control users of these devices have. Basically, everyone should be aware that the myriad possibilities offered by mobile devices are paid for with personal information. Data is the global currency in the smartphone economy.

As part of a DIVSI study entitled ‘Useful information about the use of smartphones’, the four most popular operating systems for smartphones on the German market were examined: An droid, iOS, BlackBerry and Windows Phone. The study shows that these operating systems collect a significant amount of usage and diagnostics data. Location services and voice control commands in particular tell manufacturers more and more about users.

The investigation also reveals that smartphones are especially prone to ‘betraying’ their users. They recognise preferences and habits, sharing some of this information on the sly and allowing companies to create precise profiles. This is even easier when devices are almost constantly online.

Users should also know that when they buy a new phone, the operating system is already active even before the first call is made. These devices interact with an incredible number of network connections linked to different online servers as soon as they are turned on. Users can do nothing against this, and most of them are not at all aware of the process.

It is also unclear where collected data is stored. Mobile phone users cannot find out this specific information from any operating system. The data privacy policies written by manufacturers merely indicate that personal data may be stored and processed in a number of countries around the world.

A careful study of the information provided by manufacturers does not go very far in shedding more light on the issue. Their data privacy policies are very similar on the whole, and they leave significant room for interpretation. When users consent to these statements, they usually allow manufacturers to use their data in order to provide and improve services, but also to share it with partners.

Users face something of a dilemma. They often weigh up the benefits and the risks before opting for greater convenience. In many cases, resignation causes people to click ‘accept’ (too) quickly because the published text is difficult to understand and extremely long. Some data privacy policies are as lengthy as the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany.

Blind faith often plays a central role with people simply assuming ‘everything will be fine’. The possible consequences of this attitude were highlighted by F-Secure, a company that offers online security solutions. It carried out an experiment that involved offering free Wi-Fi in a public space. Users simply had to accept the terms of use by tapping ‘okay’. It was obvious that nobody read the conditions because everyone gave their consent – and part of the agreement was to put their first-born child into the services of F-Secure. This was set out quite clearly in the terms of use.

Surprisingly, people demonstrate paradoxical behaviour when it comes to the issue of mobile connectivity. On the one hand, users want greater transparency and thus personal security. On the other hand, they clearly prefer free services for going online.

A recent DIVSI study entitled ‘Data – commodity and currency’ shows that 76% of users rely solely or primarily on services that do not have to be paid for. However, 75% of respondents are also aware that in most cases they are paying for these supposedly free online deals with their personal information. So what can be done? A return to an analogue in the future, the comeback of pencil and paper? That is not very realistic, even in theory. The Internet is not merely a passing fad at the peak of its boom. On the contrary, our world is becoming more connected every day. At some point, probably in the not too distant future, everything will be linked with everything else ... and everyone.

Because this development seems inevitable, perhaps we should try to form some sort of social alliance – a system whereby everyone takes on a small piece of responsibility for a free and secure digital world.

Politicians should create the appropriate framework. Businesses should offer appropriate products and services to cater for different security needs. And users also have a part to play: they need to express and address their preferences and expectations. They have to ask how they want the digital future to be – and take part in shaping it.


Joanna Schmölz is deputy director of the German Institute for Trust and Security on the Internet (DIVSI). The institute aims to foster a transparent dialogue about data and Internet usage, and to fuel the public discussion with new insights.


Using smartphones: the essentials


When you download and use a third-party app, the applicable privacy policy is that of the respective app provider. As a user, this means you must trust the third-party software and install it on your device. In many cases, it is difficult to see how the app works and what data it will actually access. Major app stores run by operating system providers use security mechanisms to identify weaknesses or infringements of the manufacturer’s guidelines.


Users often have to decide when installing an application what data may be accessed during operation. The functionality of apps can be restricted on any operating system.


On BlackBerry and iOS devices, it is possible to withdraw access rights (or to grant them) after choosing the initial settings. The same is not true for unmodified Android and Windows Phone systems.


No operating system provides a complete overview. One exception is GPS location data: Android and iOS show you which apps have recently accessed this data.

Source: DIVSI-Study „Wissenswertes über den Umgang mit Smartphones“. Analyse der in Deutschland meistverbreiteten mobilen Betriebssysteme Android, BlackBerry, iOS und Windows Phone

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