Scrap the app: Smart-phone users getting wary over privacy

Smart-phone users, like PC users through the decades, can be shamefully lax about basic security, but one thing they’re starting to pay attention to is privacy.

The emergence of smart phones and the personal information-seeking apps they use --  not to mention the rise of mobile malware --  is creating widespread privacy concerns among users, according to a recent report by Pew Research.

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More than half of both Android and iPhone users --  54 percent --  have opted not to install a mobile app on their phones due to privacy concerns, and 33 percent have uninstalled an app after learning what information it can access. Twelve percent said they had someone access information on their phone in a way that made them feel their privacy was invaded. Additionally, nearly one-third (31 percent) have either lost or had their phone stolen.

“The rise of the smart phone has dramatically altered the relationship between cell owners and their phones when it comes to monitoring and safeguarding their personal information,” said Aaron Smith, a research associate with the project and report co-author in a press release. “The wealth of intimate details stored on smart phones makes them akin to the personal diaries of the past --  the information they contain is hard to replace if lost, and potentially embarrassing in the wrong hands.”

That information also is a concern for government agencies, which are increasing allowing mobile devices into their enterprises, whether the phones and tablets are agency-issued or the personal property of employees. The fact that people are starting to pay attention to what apps can take from them is good news, even if users overall still have a ways to go.

Some additional report findings:

  • Six in 10 smart phone users and 41 percent of cell phone users and back up photos, contacts and other files on their phone so they have a copy in case their phone is ever broken or lost.
  • Half of smart phone users and 32 percent of cell phone users cleared browsing or search history on their phone.
  • One third of smart phone users and 19 percent of cell phone users turned off location tracking because they were concerned that other individuals or companies could access that information.

Interestingly, those who have lost or had their phone stolen are no more likely than average to back up its contents.

Mobile app privacy concerns may become more of a concern for government agencies as more individuals adopt smart phones and use them at work. Earlier this year a survey by Pew Research found that 49 percent of cell phone owners had a smart phone --  either an Android, iPhone or Blackberry.

Meanwhile, high-ranking federal IT officials, speaking at an Aug. 21 panel in Washington, said it was only a matter of time before workers would be able to use their own smart phones and tablets within their agencies. Officials said policies and procedures are being developed because a younger work force is bringing their phones to work whether they are allowed to or not.

“We know a lot of people in government and industry walking around with two phones, only one of which they actually use,” said Kathy Conrad, principal deputy associate administrator with the General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies.

In April, the Federal Communications Commission, law enforcement agencies and the wireless industry, with the support of a U.S. senator, launched the PROTECT Initiative to combat what it called an epidemic of smart-phones and tablet thefts and protect the devices’ data when lost or stolen.

And if you lose a smart phone, there is a 50 percent chance that the finder will try to return it, but an almost 100 percent chance that they first will browse through your files and applications, according to a experiment done earlier this year by Symantec and Sprint.

About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.


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