Mobile devices and privacy

By Neil Pawley

I’ve been thinking about my previous blog post describing the reticence many consumers in Hong Kong display towards using their mobile devices for anything more than social networking.

Primarily when out and about away from the perceived security of their house and – more importantly – their laptop.

Mobile devices (smart phones and tablets) are being used more and more but generally only for the most basic socialising and monitoring, not for anything that is thought to be complicated or transactional. Two issues create this situation:

Perceived insecurity of public Wi-Fi

This is unlikely to go away quickly and is more of a technical and communication issue that only the providers can resolve.

Screen brightness

This is a design and user experience issue of the tablet device itself, more specifically the screen. These are universally bright, particularly clear and difficult for bystanders to avoid catching a glimpse of when being used on a packed MTR train.

This isn’t really an issue when you’re using your iPad to watch a movie or post a comment on Facebook. However, it is a big problem if you want to check your bank balance or purchase some stock on the Hang Seng, this is private and not something you generally want an audience for. Is there a solution for this? At present this issue seems to be either going unnoticed or uncared for by designers.

So, this is my thought, it’s not a big thought and it’s probably been thought of before but I really don’t understand why it hasn’t been implemented up to now.

My suggestion would be use a similar glass on a tablet that is already used on many ATM’s. This glass contains hidden black bands that ensure that vision is ideal if you are directly in front of the device but obscures the screen if more than 5 degrees from centre. This immediately limits any attempts at peripheral viewing.

In fact this banding could be electronic rather than physical allowing the user the option to turn the feature off or on in the general settings of the device. This solution would ensure that the tablet could be made personal for certain situations and transactions or made viewable to all if there was a requirement for social sharing of content, such as viewing photo’s or a movie.

Everyone will undoubtedly tell me there are many good technical reasons why this hasn’t been implemented up to now. Well, if that’s the case someone should hurry up and find a solution. Until something of this sort is put in place there will continue to be a reticence on the part of many consumers to view personal information anywhere other than the most private of locations.

Neil Pawley

I joined W3C in 1995 working for six years on the formation of guidelines for HTML, CSS, RDF and WAI. I worked with some of the cleverest people around, lectured in the UK and US and authored and contributed to a number of technical publications. I’m also immensely proud of having contributed three entries to Roger’s Profanisaurus in 1998 and they are still there.

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