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The mobile industry is at an inflection point as OS and app developers struggle to find the perfect balance between UX and privacy. Recently, the public consciousness has been busy revealing the dark side of the “information age”. For example, The social dilemma was the second most viewed documentary on Netflix, with 38 million viewers at the end of its first month on the streaming platform. As public awareness and focus on the darker side increases, it becomes easy to lose sight of the benefits of processing user data.
Data keeps the mobile ecosystem running
It’s no exaggeration to say that data keeps the mobile ecosystem running. Device features like Siri or text recognition use machine learning algorithms to better anticipate user needs. Mobile apps process user data in order to improve the app experience by personalizing features and content. For example, a travel app whose user has booked hotels in Florence, Rome, and Naples can put them in the group that will receive a push notification with discounted prices for hotels in the Amalfi Coast. Or a messaging app that uses its users’ data for an adaptive scheduling algorithm that determines the times of day when they don’t want to receive notifications (like the middle of the night or during the workday).
The processing of user data can even be an integral part of the usefulness of a feature, such as For example, weather or traffic apps that provide real-time updates to advise users on what actions to take to stay safe on the road. Or, to give a more specific example, the Pokémon GO app tracks users’ geolocation data so they can hunt for Pokémon, battle other trainers, and participate in raids in an augmented reality overlaid on the real world. The whole concept of the game breaks down when users withhold their data.
Most device users would agree that the above data use cases are acceptable and even preferable to a non-personalized app experience. However, when apps and websites send user data to third-party advertisers without users’ consent, it enters unethical territory. So where is the golden mean? Should we sacrifice our use of free apps that give us an experience tailored to our preferences so that we can sit on a growing horde of personal data that is of no use to anyone?
Where is the limit when it comes to what data can be used for? Or who has access to it?
Moving away from cloud processing
Perhaps instead of what or who, we should really examine what we are how our data is processed. And to do that, it’s worth taking a look at what the leaders in the mobile industry – Apple and Google – are doing in their latest mobile operating systems.
In September 2021 Apple’s iOS15 went live and there were some exciting privacy changes. Many of their new features show a shift towards Apple trying to make the iPhone less invasive and keep user data private – even from Apple. Building on the controversial app tracking transparency released with iOS 14.5, which meant apps had to get user consent before tracking their IDFA to send to advertisers, Apple’s latest features bring transparency and data minimization to the next level.
Apple’s new Intelligent Tracking Prevention feature in Safari browser combines machine learning with on-device processing to hide your IP address from trackers. “Device-side” in this case means that all data processing for this function takes place locally on the mobile device itself, rather than the operating system transmitting your data to the Apple cloud server. Not only does this mean your data remains 100% private—even from Apple—but by processing it on-device rather than on a cloud server with trillions of other data points, your data’s vulnerability to hacking is dramatically reduced.
In addition, since Intelligent Tracking Prevention data is processed locally, Apple users retain full ownership and access to their data. You can view their privacy report of all cross-site trackers blocked by Intelligent Tracking Prevention in the Safari browser sidebar.
Apple has moved other data processing functions to the device side, including face recognition. And Siri processes both voice commands and Siri Suggestions entirely on the device, without sending any personal information to Apple’s servers.
Google announces Privacy Sandbox for Android
Likewise, given Apple’s shift toward the device side as an industry leader, Google finally has plans to extend Privacy Sandbox to Android operating systems. Privacy Sandbox is already at work implementing device-side processing for Chrome web browsers: Google’s Federated Cohort of Learning (FLoC) feature replaces traditional third-party browser cookies by recording 100% of users’ browsing history on-device.
Advertisers then receive information about the web activity of cohorts of anonymous users, but do not have access to user data, which remains securely on their devices. In this way, it protects both user privacy and data, which advertisers find 95% as accurate as what they used to get with cookies.
Privacy Sandbox won’t be active on Android until 2024. However, the fact that they have some features that process data on the device shows a clear trend in this direction. And while their plans are still nebulous, they’ve laid out some key pillars of their Android privacy sandbox going forward.
In particular, an algorithm that sorts users into themes based on the apps they use will take place entirely on-device. Apps and advertisers can then view these cohorts of users to make decisions about which ads to show. Additionally, since everything happens on the device, users can access and personalize their themes in their device settings.
FLEDGE is another feature where apps define “custom audiences” for ads based on behavioral data of users in the app. This data, as well as the ads themselves, are stored locally on the device, meaning businesses can still target their existing customers for marketing purposes, but no third parties can access identifying data.
Forward: Is the device side the answer?
Apple and Google’s mobile privacy capabilities are in a state of flux, and it’s likely that more adjustments are on the horizon. Nevertheless, the trend seems to be that the device-side storage and processing of user data is increasing.
On-device processing not only enables user data to be put to good use—without exposing it to unethical or unwanted third-party access—but also fosters a bond of trust between mobile devices, apps, and their users. On-device processing of user data means a high level of transparency as users retain ownership and decision-making power over their own private information.
While advertisers may be less than happy to make compromises, this move toward a mobile industry that prioritizes individual privacy and data ownership is broadly positive. Additionally, on-device processing offers a variety of benefits for mobile apps – including a more efficient and streamlined computing process as data no longer needs to be transported to an external server for processing and access to a more complete suite of metrics – in addition to the fact that it solves privacy issues.
With devices, apps, and users all benefiting, it’s worth keeping an eye on the mobile industry over the next few years to see how the shift to device-side computing will transform it.
David Shackleton is the CEO of OpenBack.
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