Privacy and Mindfulness in the time of WhatsApp and Instagram

Before the mobile phone came about, the only way to reach someone was on their home or office landline numbers and if they were unavailable, then we would just have to wait for them to call back. As limiting and slow this mode of communication was, it got the work done. With the advent of mobile phones, everybody is expected to be available at all times. Which is great for fast communication, but it raises an important question of when do we unplug? Any time someone wants to talk to you, all they have to do is call on your cell phone and no matter whatever you are in the middle of doing, you inadvertently interrupt it and answer the phone call. Mobile phones, while bringing the benefit of faster communication, seem to have taken away the luxury of distraction-free work and quality interactions with the people around us.

According to a study conducted on Chinese adolescents, it was found that “inattention in adolescents was significantly associated with mobile phone ownership, the time spent on entertainment on mobile phone per day, the position of the mobile phone during the day and the mode of the mobile phone at night. The strongest association between inattention and the time spent on the mobile phone was among students who spent more than 60 minutes per day playing on their mobile phone.”

With the advent of personal messaging, social media, notifications and the infinite scroll on mobile phone apps; their addictiveness, their impact on focus and attention span have become important issues that have come to the forefront. Some attempts have been made to address this through the integration of digital wellbeing features by software makers like Google and Apple in their products.

With the smartphone, we have this miraculous product that is capable of tracking your location, your movement, your health parameters, internet usage habits, what you search for, whom you call or message, what you message, people in your network, etc. with great precision. This data can be used to personalize and customize your experiences and interaction with your device. Put this together with the increasing AI compute capabilities that smartphones are gaining these days (both on-device and in the cloud) and your phone can now predict, quite literally, what’s on your mind. This also raises legitimate concerns of privacy. Tracking of user data, even when anonymized, can be problematic. Fingerprinting of a user is still possible from harvesting the vast swaths of even anonymized data which his very unique to that person.

The recent update to WhatsApp’s privacy policy has been an important wakeup call to this reality. Although a false alarm, it has resulted in a frenzied drive to switch from WhatsApp to other messaging platforms among some circles. (For a deeper understanding of why this may potentially be a false alarm today, I would suggest reading this fantastic piece by Ars Technica and WhatsApp’s clarification on this matter. TL;DR: the latest privacy update is only about how businesses interact with WhatsApp users and how business accounts access these chats through Facebook services. But fingerprinting of users is still technically possible from anonymized data.)

Whether this is the beginning of the end of WhatsApp remains to be seen. My personal opinion is that this seems highly unlikely in the short term due to the strong Network effect that WhatsApp has been able to create.

What messaging platform or social media we choose is more a byproduct of what the people we interact with use rather than what we would like to use. But what we share on and with these platforms and how much time we spend on them is under our control.

With increasing emphasis on digital well-being and app permissions on recent builds of Android and iOS, it has become easier to curb background data gathering of apps by revoking their permissions. We should explore and use the mindfulness focused features on our mobile phones that allow us to block selective notifications from apps, to track our app usage patterns, set timers to limit the use of certain apps and even the “Do Not Disturb” mode. Although not perfect, if used effectively, it can go a long way to get back the luxury of distraction-free work and quality interactions with people around you, without compromising on the benefits of having a mobile phone.

(If you are interested in understanding how software is designed to be addictive how we can change that, check out this excellent article by Joe Edelman.)