If you’ve got a smartphone, it’s probably become so indispensable that you’d be lost without it (often literally, thanks to its mapping and location apps). “It’s your whole life in a small device,” says Eduard Goodman, the Phoenix-based chief privacy officer for the blog Identity Theft 911.
That’s exactly why privacy experts and government officials are increasingly concerned about the safety and confidentiality of the information that gets stored on cell phones.
I’m concerned, too. Given that it’s National Consumer Protection Week, I think it's especially appropriate that you take a few critical steps to guard yourself against privacy breaches.
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The Big Privacy Worry for Smartphone Owners
The chief worry isn’t about thieves getting their hands on lost or stolen devices, but the ease with which companies can gain access to the personal information stored on your phone.
Think about what you have in there: email addresses and phone numbers from your contacts; calendar appointments; personal photos; and, of greatest concern, personal financial information saved on your bank account app and shopping apps. On top of that, the smartphone can continually track your location to build a detailed profile of your recent and current whereabouts.
Without your knowledge, the developers of your apps, your wireless provider and your handset manufacturer can sell this information to other companies, like advertisers, insurers or even places you’re applying for a job.
Two Recent Smartphone Privacy Cases
The growth of smartphones and apps prompted the Federal Trade Commission to bring two privacy cases concerning them in just the last month.
In one, the agency accused HTC America, a leading Android maker, with failing to secure the software in millions of its smartphones. The lack of security could have permitted apps on some HTC phones to tap into such information as financial account numbers and access codes.
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HTC settled the charges, agreeing to develop and release software patches. If you own an HTC phone, visit the company’s website to see if you need to download any of the patches.
In the other case, the FTC charged Path, the operator of the eponymous social-networking app, with deceiving its users by collecting personal information from their mobile address books without their knowledge or consent. The agency fears that an app company with access to a user’s contact list could sell or share that information with anyone.
Path agreed to settle the charges, paying $800,000 and promising to create a program to identify privacy risks and establish controls to address them.
What Companies Are Being Told to Do
The same day the FTC announced the Path settlement, the agency issued privacy recommendations for operating-system providers (like Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon) and app developers. The FTC urged them to provide smartphone owners with easy-to-understand disclosures about the data they’re collecting and how it could be used.
Although the recommendations aren’t mandatory, companies that fail to follow them could face FTC action in the future.
“Consumers don’t have a good idea about what information is being collected and used by various companies and apps,” Christopher Olsen, an assistant director in the FTC’s division of privacy and identity protection, told me in a recent telephone chat. “The responsibility really lies with the companies providing mobile services to help consumers determine which apps to download and use.”
6 Steps to Protect Your Privacy
Still, there are steps consumers can, and should, take to avoid smartphone privacy problems. Here are six from Olsen and Goodman:
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2. Think twice before signing up for a free app. An app that is free to you cost its developer something to create. So there's a good chance the company might make money by collecting your data then selling it. “Free apps are not free, so you have to assume your information is available” to the app developer and perhaps others, Goodman says.
3. Use your smartphone settings to protect your privacy. By programming the phone wisely, you limit an app’s access to your information and turn off the app’s ability to track your location.
You may find it easier to adjust your privacy settings on an Apple phone than on an Android, though. With an Android, you might be able to limit tracking only by uninstalling an app.
4. Close or log off apps when you’re not using them. That’s especially smart for shopping and bank apps since shutting them down makes it harder for companies to access what’s in them. “It is a pain, admittedly,” Goodman says.
5. When your app developer sends you an update, click on it. Updates may contain security patches that protect your information and device from the latest malware.
Of course, an update could also mean a change in an app’s data collection and sharing practices. But the app should let you know if this is part of its update.
6. When upgrading to a new phone, clear all the data on your old phone. It doesn’t matter whether you’re trading in, recycling or tossing the device.
To find out how to clear your data, search the Internet using the phrase: “how to clear data on smartphone” and include your old model and operating system. Wiping your phone's slate clean could be one of the smartest calls you'll make.