For the second time in as many months, I’ve watched someone drop their phone into a urinal they’ve just used only to immediately reach in and retrieve it. In both instances, the guy just kind of shrugged, washed his hands, and left. What struck me (apart from the fact that I’m never asking to use anyone’s phone ever again) is that technology well and truly dominates us. It guides and influences our lives in such an encompassing, yet subtle, way that we’ve lost sight of it. What else would make you stick your hand into a used toilet? In fact, you might choose to flush your phone if you recognized the trouble it creates.

Our devices give us access to the entire corpus of human thought. They engender connectedness and relationship with people around the world. And, unsurprisingly, they also provide a door to solicit sex, spread extremist propaganda, and act as a launching point for devastating cyberattacks. But, we use them to forward clickbait, trade cat pics, and sext with our love interests. In 2014, McAfee released a report indicating that half of all adults shared intimate content (explicit images, emails, and texts) with someone else. That’s actually 12 percent more than folks who admit to sharing their passwords and 7 percent more than people who admit to sharing their banking details with another person. At least we’re still worried about sharing passwords and banking information with each other.

Using technology is like having sex. We like the fun, the feelings, and the connection with others.

To make things worse, many of us are willfully ignorant of technology and wear that illiteracy like a badge of honor, as if we don’t need to understand the grasp it has over us. And because we've not thought through the repercussions of that asphyxiating obliviousness, we increasingly are not in control of the devices we carry, the online services we use, and the personally identifying information we surrender in order to use them. Phishing, by far the most persistent cyberthreat we face, could be solved if people would pause for two seconds to ensure the link they are about to click is the website they mean to visit. Yet they can't stop themselves.

Using technology is like having sex. We like the fun, the feelings, and the connection with others. But if we aren’t mindful of downstream consequences like having babies, spreading disease, and dealing with psycho ex-lovers, we can end up in situations that we never anticipated. We all love to play Candy Crush, post photos on Instagram, and keep up with our friends on Facebook, but we often neglect to think through the risks of those behaviors, from the bullying and exploitation of children to the increased spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Remember you control the device; it doesn't control you. And because you can limit your use of it and what you share through it, it’s your responsibility to do so.

Equally troubling is how governments and private entities use our data. If you use Google Now, in all likelihood Google knows more about you than your spouse. And yet you still use your phone as though “hotdogs or legs” is more important than protecting your data. On August 15, The New York Times revealed a partnership between the NSA and AT&T that, although previously known, is “unique and especially productive” in that it has lasted for decades. And while the story provides further details about the relationship between the NSA and AT&T, it is one story in a vast compendium of reportage on this issue. But, nothing seems to change. We still use AT&T and Google because of course if we stopped, if we suddenly decided to cease using our devices and the apps we access through them, we wouldn’t be able to right swipe our way into someone’s life.

Indeed, if you care about how companies and governments use your data and how technology runs your life, stop and think. Understand that you live in a world that is enabled and made better by technology. Everything you do from driving to communicating to managing the HVAC in your house is made possible by technology. But, it comes at a heavy price: your data.

In his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan wrote:

"We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster."

Let’s avert a disaster. Here are some recommendations to begin the process of taking back control of your data:

  1. Remove apps from your phone that you no longer use. Remove their access to Facebook via Facebook’s security settings. If you’ve used Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Google+ to login to a third-party app, remove that access as well.
  2. Periodically review what cloud-sharing services you have turned on. Visit the cloud service via the web, not your phone, and delete any photos, emails, and contacts if you don’t need them.
  3. Turn on encryption. Always. Forever. On everything.
  4. Geo-location services are tricky. Apps like Waze are amazing, but you leave a trail. And any photos you take may have geolocation data embedded in them. So this decision is contextual. Your call, but be aware.
  5. As the Ashley Madison breach has proven, assume any website you provide data to can be hacked. If it’s a site that could cause embarrassment or harm to you or your loved ones, think it through.

Remember you control the device; it doesn't control you. And because you can limit your use of it and what you share through it, it’s your responsibility to do so. Don’t misunderstand me. I realize there are instances where you can’t control what happens with your data. But in those cases where you can, you should. And in the event you find yourself staring into a toilet with your phone resting at the watery bottom, perhaps it’s your responsibility to just let it go.


Jason is Chief, Innovation for Thomson Reuters Special Services where he facilitates, oversees, and executes long-term solutions to emerging technology challenges. He works closely with governments, the private-sector, and non-governmental organizations to identify opportunities that will shape the future. The views expressed are his alone and do not necessarily represent the views of Thomson Reuters or Thomson Reuters Special Services.

Image courtesy of iStock