Once upon a time in a mobile… Is this the end of mobile tech’s wild-west?

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It may seem strange to reference an old film when blogging about the industry of the future that is mobile tech –the reference is to ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ from 1968 for those who love their classic westerns. But with tech industry giants like Facebook, Google, and Twitter backing Apple decision’s this week to fight against the US federal government’s order for Apple to help investigators break into an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino mass shooters; is this the end of tech’s ‘Wild West’ era or an important principle of freedom from the state for the mobile tech industry?

The analogy to the Wild West sums up a perspective by some in relation to the unregulated frontier that is many areas of the mobile tech industry. Being a cutting edge industry as it is, there are many ongoing examples of states and supra-state bodies like the EU looking at what the right regulatory balance is for a rapid evolving and growing industry. Moves to examine block chain are a typical example of this area. On the 11th of February, a UK Parliament discussion of the “Bank of England and Financial Services Bill” relating to financial services regulation has raised questions about how bank liquidity and solvency should be monitored in the face of new technologies such as blockchain. Such discussions come in light of the tremendous capacity that such new technologies like bitcoin and other mobile tech apps and developments can deliver to us. For example, the UK’s chief scientific adviser has urged the government to adopt the technology that powers crypto-currency Bitcoin to run various public services as a more secure way of managing data.

And it is these points around security and data where the tensions are mounting around the mobile tech industry. In light of the federal decision over the San Bernardino shootings, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook decried that this decision would it would degrade iPhone security and make users more vulnerable to spies and cyber thieves. In a tweet on Thursday, Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey wrote “We stand with @tim_cook and Apple (and thank him for his leadership)!” In a statement late Thursday, Facebook said it condemned terrorism, but that “These demands would create a chilling precedent and obstruct companies’ efforts to secure their products.” Finally, Google CEO Sunder Pichai, stated in a series of tweets that Forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users’ privacy,” setting “a troubling precedent.”

And these stalwarts of the tech industry are right to state that this will set a precedent. Both in terms of similar examples of security requests and other countries and areas looking at making demands of these multinational companies, which up until now have avoided the interventions and regulations of many other traditional industry sectors; people will look to this example.

At the heart of the matter is how successful these companies and areas of new technology have been in changing our lives. Essentially most things in our lives are moving towards mobile tech becoming the platform for our activities. For example, next week  Volvo are to unveil their new range of ‘cars without keys’ that will be unlocked and switched on using mobile phone apps, making them the first to carmaker in the world to do so. But they will quickly be followed by others.

This is the crux of the problem. As more of our lives move to this area, there will be more requests for intervention and regulation in this area. From security to crime (such as hacking for data and for things soon such as cars), this will become a recurring tension between allowing this industry to grow and flourish and protecting the rights and needs of people.

Where the balance is, is hard to say – I must admit personally I think that the security issue of the San Bernardino case will force Apple’s hand. But the tech companies are right to raise the issue over rights of users, as this will be only the first in an ever growing range of requests to them on intervention and regulation.

Just as the Wild West went into history as an exciting time of freedom, expansion and the unknown, that eventually succumbed to needs, such as stabilising communities etc., are we seeing a similar parallel occur with the mobile tech industry?

The current standoff over the San Bernardino case is almost akin to moments before the High Noon face off, so famous in westerns. But we need sensitivity here, both over this individual case and the way the mobile tech industry and its rights are dealt with going forward if the full potential of this area and the industry are to be realised.

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About the Author

About the Author: Crispin Oyen-Williams is the Director and Founder of Business Innovate. .

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