Every Cell Phone is a Party Line

Stephen Wunderli
by Stephen Wunderli — 2 years ago in Privacy 3 min. read

It’s hard to believe that just sixty years ago party lines existed in the US. No, a party line is not a hotline with the latest news on local parties. When phone lines reached across the Country there were more households than lines, so often two homes would share the same phone line. Which meant you could pick up your phone and hear your neighbor’s conversation. It also meant you had to wait until they were finished until you could make your call.

Before long, technology and infrastructure caught up to the demand and party lines disappeared. The only way somebody could listen in on your conversation is if your little brother was good at picking up the spare phone without you hearing it. Or, if you were wiretapped by the government or some other nefarious group. For the most part, hardlines were private. For someone to listen in they had to target you specifically.

Birth of the cell phone.

The first cell phones were bricks with antennas. Cell towers were few and far between so they needed the power to transmit long distances. They were expensive, monthly costs were around $1500. But, how cool was it to sit in the park and make a phone call? Technology accelerated, more towers were built, cheap phones were cranked out, monthly plans went down and it seems everyone was flipping their phone open in restaurants, lobbies, airports and on street corners. The convenience and cool factor won over even the most ardent Luddites. There was talk about cell phones making us antisocial and rude. 

Meanwhile, the Internet was taking over the free world. The next obvious step was to have all that access, all that information, all that capacity on a cell phone, a smartphone. “There’s an app for that” launched the iPhone. We now spend more time with smartphone media than we do with TV. If you are under 25 years old, you’ve never known a world without a smartphone.

The brave, new, digital world affects and accelerates everything: business deals, relationships, politics, self-improvement, education, and even religion (online churches). All that information, from so many sources, with so many motivations, can build-out a virtual world that defines our reality. But what’s the trade-off?

What we give up.

With so much time spent on fringe news, social media, and self-indulgence, the first thing we give up is our humanity. We are more predisposed to loneliness, depression, and incivility than ever before. When life’s best moments are overshared, or only experienced online, a little bit of the human soul dies. And when we don’t have true privacy, when we know that everything we do online is being followed by someone, even if we didn’t invite them in, we experience a dose of daily angst. The Chicken Little cry of “Big Brother is watching!” has moved from fable to fact. 

We no longer have private lives. Our phones are like the old party lines except that the people listening in are more than neighborhood voyeurs, they want to sell and exploit us. Big data companies have no conscience, no moral scale to weigh out and balance profit v privacy. We, the users, are seen only as commodities.

But we want privacy

And marketers know it, so they pepper ads with all the right words: privacy, security, and anything else that will bring us comfort. But the truth is, no system that is built on collecting data respects the privacy of its users. 

So what will the next evolution of the smartphone be?

How about a phone that does exactly what the user wants, not what the manufacturer or the provider, or the big data company behind it want? A phone that only the owner controls. Period.

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