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Are smartphones breaching our privacy?

business Updated: May 12, 2012 13:07 IST

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With endless applications, high-speed wireless internet access, and free messaging services, smartphones have revolutionized the way we communicate, but at the cost of our privacy.

Researchers at Tel Aviv University say smartphones are challenging traditional conceptions of privacy, especially in the public sphere.

Dr. Tali Hatuka of TAU's Department of Geography and Dr. Eran Toch of TAU's Department of Industrial Engineering have teamed to measure the impact of the smart phone phenomenon on privacy, behavioural codes, and the use of public space.

Their early results indicate that although spaces such as city squares, parks, or transportation were once seen as public meeting points, smartphone users are more and more caught up in their technology-based communications devices than their immediate surroundings.

Smartphone users are 70 per cent more likely than regular cellphone users to believe that their phones afford them a great deal of privacy, said Dr. Toch, who specializes in privacy and information systems.

These users are more willing to reveal private issues in public spaces. They are also less concerned about bothering individuals who share those spaces, he stated.

Dr. Hatuka stressed that smart phones create the illusion of "private bubbles" around their users in public spaces. She also believes that the design of public spaces may need to change in response to this technology, not unlike the ways in which some public areas have been designated as "smoking" and "non-smoking."

Dr. Toch also noted that smartphones and personal computing devices are becoming more "context-aware," adjusting themselves in terms of brightness and volume to the user's location and activity.

To examine how smartphones have impacted human interactions in public and private spaces, the researchers designed an in-depth survey. Nearly 150 participants, half smart phone users and half regular phone users, were questioned about how telephone use applied to their homes, public spaces, learning spaces, and transportation spaces.

While regular phone users continued to adhere to established social protocol in terms of phone use -- postponing private conversations for private spaces and considering the appropriateness of cell phone use in public spaces -- smartphone users adapted different social behaviours for public spaces.

They were 50 per cent less likely to be bothered by others using their phones in public spaces, and 20 per cent less likely than regular phone users to believe that their private phone conversations were irritating to those around them, the researchers found.

According to the researchers, smart phone users were also more closely "attached" to their mobile devices. When asked how they felt when they were without their phones, the majority of smartphone owners chose negative descriptors such as "lost," "tense," or "not updated."

Regular phone users were far more likely to have positive associations to being without their phones, such as feeling free or quiet.