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Mobile Phone Privacy: Buck Stops With the User

Mobile Phone Privacy: Buck Stops With the User

Yes, those terms of service are annoying. They're usually too complicated and too long, and users who want a certain mobile app will be inclined to click 'next' without actually reading the fine print, even if they're worried about what rights they're signing away. Still, "cellphone users need to take responsibility for their own data," maintains Steve Durbin, global VP of the Information Security Forum.

By Erika Morphy E-Commerce Times ECT News Network
09/06/12 9:32 AM PT

Cellphone and smartphone users have a love-hate relationship with mobile apps. While they love the functionality and enhanced user experience they bring to the table, clearly many hate the perceived privacy intrusions, suggests a newly released report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

More than half -- 54 percent -- of app users surveyed decided against installing a cellphone app when they discovered how much personal information they would need to share in order to use it. Thirty percent uninstalled an app that was already on their cellphone because they learned it was collecting personal information that they didn't wish to share.

Many cellphone users take additional steps to protect the personal data on their mobile devices, including backing up photos, contacts and other files -- tasks performed by 41 percent of those surveyed. Some 32 percent have cleared the browsing or search histories on their phone, and 19 percent have turned off the location-tracking feature due to privacy concerns.

Finally, 12 percent of cell owners say that another person has accessed their phone's contents in a way that made them feel that their privacy had been invaded.

A Pew spokesperson was not immediately available to provide further details.

Highly Individual

Cellphones are vulnerable to privacy and security intrusions, but much depends on the individual who owns the device, said Dodi Glenn, product manager of GFI VIPRE Antivirus at GFI Software.

Someone who is highly technical and has written an application for a jailbroken iPhone realizes that contact leaks occur and has taken the right steps to prevent that, he told the E-Commerce Times. The majority of users, though, do tend to be ignorant about what some of the apps can do on a cellphone.

"Part of it is the dense disclosures that people have to wade through," explained Glenn. "And I think consumers have developed a kind of muscle memory to keep clicking next, next, next as they go through the user agreement without actually reading it."

More often than not, though, what they have done is agree to be monitored in some respect, he added.

Unprotected Devices

Privacy risks are magnified by the way people use their cellphones and smartphones -- that is, for just about everything, said David Shapiro, director of IT Services for Lebanon Valley College. Worse, not enough people take steps to protect their actual devices, even as they focus on the risks apps may present.

"Our phones are becoming our go-to device for email, Web, Facebook -- and now even as our wallet," he told the E-Commerce Times, but many cellphone users do not password-protect their phone, and if they do, they set a four- or five-character password as their unlock key.

"If our bank or credit card company allowed us to set a password this limited, we would be upset and cry that they don't care about our privacy and safety," Shapiro remarked.

Ultimately, the buck stops with the user, Steve Durbin, global vice president of the Information Security Forum, told the E-Commerce Times.

"Cellphone users need to take responsibility for their own data and also take the steps necessary to ensure that acceptable use is being made of their data," he said.

Downloading apps has become very much a case of caveat emptor, continued Durbin. "It's a bit like driving a car -- we should expect a certain level of regulation to make our roads safe, but the responsibility for driving safely rests in the hands of the driver."


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