Eric Schmidt on the double-edged smartphone: friend and foe

Tim Danton
7 Mar 2014

SXSW Interactive is a strange place, attracting all the greatest tech minds to the city of Austin in Texas. The result is a lot of over-excited people getting over-excited about new ideas, most of which will disappear in a puff of over-excited smoke, and it’s also a chance for big companies to push their message to a watching world.

My first formal session at SXSW 2014 saw Schmidt and fellow Googler Jared Cohen hold court on everything from democracy to WikiLeaks to smartphones, under the broad-brush heading of “The New Digital Age”.

It was an interesting hour, but the thing that resonated most with me was the idea of the smartphone as a powerful tool of democracy.

Not that this in itself is a terribly new concept – the role of social media, with phones a key aspect, is well-known from the uprisings in places such as Libya – but Schmidt and Jared made some very good points.

First, that things are about to change massively. “In the next three to five years phones will be available to all,” said Schmidt, and that is surely an incredible change worthy of pause. In a quarter of a generation, that will bring education and information to every corner of the globe.

But we need to be careful. Cohen is a man who has lived in every war-torn territory around the world, it seems, and spoke about what he’s heard from friends in Syria. In one chilling example, he talked about someone whose social media login was forced from him at gunpoint. When it became clear that he had friends who were sympathetic to anti-Government forces, he was shot.

Or, as he pointed out, you could hijack someone’s account to lure their friends somewhere to be arrested – or worse.

Aside from heavy encryption – Schmidt expressed surprise when Snowden’s leaks revealed that GCHQ had intercepted data about US citizens – Google doesn’t seem to have an answer to this, but we should all be walking into this new world with our eyes wide open.

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