“Always on and always on you” describes the extent to which consumers have integrated cellphones, smartphones and tablets into their daily lives. How deeply do consumers depend on these mobile devices? One survey found 44 percent of cell owners have slept with their phone next to their bed because they were afraid to miss any calls, text messages or other updates during the night.
As mobile device use continues to increase, there is growing concern that consumers are unaware how much sensitive data these devices can capture and potentially share without the user’s knowledge.
Mobile devices are specifically associated with their owner, which means it is possible to collect a great deal of data about the owner’s behavior. Data gathered can include precise geographic location, allowing the creation of detailed profiles of users’ movements and activities – where they work, where they live and what recreational activities they pursue.
It’s also possible to capture other sensitive information, such as whom the mobile device user texts or calls, the subject of Internet searches, photos and videos stored on the device, and calendar activities. This highly personal information may be available to third parties without the device owner realizing it. Without clear disclosure, mobile device owners don’t know what information their phone is sharing with others.
Providing greater transparency around mobile device data sharing is fundamental to protecting the privacy of consumers using mobile devices. To achieve greater transparency, there are a number of challenges to overcome.
Most devices have small screens, limiting the effectiveness of the traditional wordy privacy statements used to inform users about data collection and use. Because many companies bury the details of their privacy policies in long general privacy disclosures, mobile device users are unlikely to read these disclosures or comprehend the privacy implications. Also, a complex mobile ecosystem involving device manufacturers, device operating system developers, wireless service providers, app developers and advertising networks makes it difficult for consumers to understand who may have access to their data. Consumer advocates and regulators must address these issues to improve mobile privacy disclosures.
As consumers continue to integrate mobile devices into their daily lives, it is important they be able to make informed decisions about the use of their sensitive personal information as well as exercise their rights to limit the sharing of this information. A new AARP Public Policy Institute report discusses these issues and provides recommendations to help improve consumer privacy protections for mobile device users.
Neal Walters is a policy research senior analyst for the Consumer and State Affairs Team who publishes on topics including financial information privacy, identity theft, affordable home utilities, prepaid cards, credit reporting and the subprime mortgage market.
Image source: National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Short Form Notice Code of Conduct user interface mockups