Who owns a conversation?

I was catching up with some industry news the other day and there was a an interesting discussion going on. The discussion was about granting 3rd party apps access to content on other apps, specifically messages and phone numbers. And that prompted the question that’s also the title of this post. Who owns a conversation? Let’s imagine you and I were friends and let’s also imagine we decided to chat using Apple Messages (or is it still called iMessage?). Since messages are encrypted—in theory—the only people who know the contents of our conversation are you and I. Now, let’s imagine that I wanted to use some app that in order to function needs to have access to my messages. Maybe to scan for dates to update a calendar or some other functionality. That’s not important. What’s important is that I decided I want to use that app and grant the app permission to access my messages. Should I be able to do it? Are my messages in fact mine or are those our messages and I shouldn’t be able to unilaterally decide what to do with them?

Something similar happens with phone numbers. I have a private phone number. I don’t use it for anything internet related. But if I give it to you, you save it in your contacts app and then grant Facebook/Google/Apple/Whoever access to your contacts in order for their app to work, you have effectively given my phone number away without my permission. Unrelated tangent: is it even possible to keep a phone number really private these days? I’d argue, no.

I’m asking these questions because I obviously don’t have an answer to them. I don’t think there even is an answer. You can argue a conversation belongs to you and you’re free to do whatever you want with it, and you can also argue that no, it belongs to us and we should both be involved when it comes to sharing it with a 3rd party entity. In a perfect technological world the solution would be being able to grant access only to my side of the conversation and therefore only provide access to my messages. But the world we live in is far from being even remotely perfect.

Where do you go from here?

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