Don’t get app-athetic: Seamless, frictionless experiences have plenty of privacy implications

seamWe’ve been trying to pinpoint what’s happening with lifestyle and social apps for awhile now. It all started when Color launched. The augmented reality app was the first of its kind; the first to totally connect our digital and real lives in a relatively seamless, visual, instantly gratifying way. It had plenty of faults – so many that it’s seriously scaled back into an insta-video Facebook application (which has its own interesting uses, but simply isn’t as cool).

While the original app had a short shelf-life, its idea lives on. A number of recently launched apps are promoting themselves as focused on serendipity, on seamless experiences. Highlight is a location app that reads your phone’s GPS data and then automatically finds friends nearby so you can “happen” to meet up. Evertale is a soon-coming social network that will automatically create a digital timeline based on your mobile activity. HipGeo creates a virtual, visual log of your travels by accessing your GPS and your photo album.

It all sounds very convenient: leveraging the data we make in more creative ways than we are doing ourselves. But is this lifestreaming or laziness? Are we enjoying a virtual reality in addition to an active one, or a passive one?

At the same time that this is all happening, we’ve been dogged by reports of developers and platforms violating privacy standards. Today the New York Times reported that app developers say iOS devices are treating photos and videos much like they’d been dealing with address books up until recently. “After a user allows an application on an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch to have access to location information, the app can copy the user’s entire photo library, without any further notification or warning.”

The sacrifice we’re making in order to use apps rears its ugly head yet again. While it’s unknown whether any specific apps are doing this, we all assumed they weren’t with contact lists — and that didn’t go down well.

On one hand, there’s something very interesting about the idea of doing something with all that data we’re making – the check-ins, photos, or meals made, etcetera. Still, we aren’t the ones actually doing anything with it; that task is being shipped over to someone (or rather, something) else. The user is but the beginning of the process.

So where is the impetus coming from? Is it because we’re too apathetic to apply our own data to a more interesting means – or because we’re so invested in it we need to see what it can do?

Facebook was one of the first to introduce this idea of “frictionless” applications. When it announced its Open Graph and Timeline apps back at f8, we all heard Facebook would soon boast a bevy of “verb apps” that would allow us to more aptly show what we do and what we’ve done. The caveat being, of course, that we are largely foregoing the permissions screen as we previously knew it.

Now we’ve all been warned to kingdom come about the privacy implications of the Open Graph, as well as about location-reading apps. And everyone’s been a watch dog when it comes to them, but we can’t let our guards down. The very idea behind seamless, serendipitous, frictionless applications is that we make it easier to access our data.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m intrigued by seamless apps and the products and possibilities they could create, and those that have launched are ahead of the curve. The mobile world specifically is soon to see a rash of them, and perhaps we’d be wise to make certain platforms are holding developers accountable from the onset – not after the fact.