Smartphone Users Believe Privacy Is Wherever They Are

Smartphones may have revolutionized how we communicate, but according to researchers at Tel Aviv University, they're also upending traditional ideas of privacy—especially in public.


Researchers measured how the smartphone affects privacy and behavior in public spaces such as city squares and parks and public transportation. Even in these places, smartphone users are 70% more likely than regular cellphone users to believe their phones afford them a great deal of privacy, said Eran Toch, an industrial engineering professor who specializes in privacy and information systems at Tel Aviv University. These users are more willing to reveal private issues in public spaces, and they are less concerned about bothering people who share those spaces, he said.

Nearly 150 participants, half smartphone users and half users of regular phones, were questioned about how telephone use applied to their homes, and public, learning and transportation spaces. While users of regular phones continued to stick to established social protocol in terms of phone use—such as postponing private conversations for private spaces and weighing the appropriateness of cell phone use in public areas—smartphone users adapted different social behaviors for public spaces.

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



Lost without a phone 

Smartphone use creates the illusion of a private bubble in a public space, added Tali Hatuka, a geography professor at the university. She also believes that the design of public spaces may need to change, not unlike the ways in which some public areas have been designated non-smoking. Toch also noted that smartphones and personal computing devices are becoming more “context-aware,” by self-adjusting display brightness and volume to the user’s location and activity.

Smartphone users were also more emotionally attached to their mobile devices. The majority of smartphone owners chose negative descriptors such as “lost,” “tense,” or “not updated” to describe how they felt without their phones. Regular phone users, on the other hand, were more likely to associate being without a phone with feeling free or quiet.

The next phase of the study will be a more in-depth analysis of how smartphone users incorporate this technology into their daily lives.