Saturday, September 7, 2013

Privacy and mobile phone applications

A Few days ago I came across a very interesting fact-sheet about privacy in the age of smartphones that I will try to summarize in this blog entry. Although the fact-sheet is based on US statistics, parts of it could apply to the EU environment.

In recent years, smartphones have become an intricate part of our everyday lives, just like personal computers years ago. However, research has shown a difference in user’s attitudes towards privacy of smartphones compared to that of personal computers: users tend to be less concerned about protection of their smartphones against fraudulent activities.

Smartphones, as well as personal computers, store a variety of personal information. This includes, but is not limited to: information regarding incoming and outgoing calls, details about text messages, usage of internet access, location, photos and videos, contacts, passwords, financial data, calendars, etc. This information could be valuable to many individuals including private and public entities: criminals, advertisers, employers, insurance companies and governments.

Access to the data stored on a smartphone can be gained by those interested parties in numerous ways other than simply stealing the device. In particular public Wi-Fi networks represent a treasure trove of personal information. Public Wi-Fi networks, as well as Bluetooth connections, enable others to obtain transmitted information, unless the data is protected.

Furthermore, revealing information could also be shared via geotags. Certain applications, such as Foursquare, need geotags in order to function properly, but many applications transmit a large amount of unnecessary data. The Wall Street Journal has published a fact-sheet describing what data is transmitted by different mobile phone applications and to whom.

Nevertheless, personal data collected via mobile phone applications is typically used for data profiling. Such profiles are very valuable for advertisers, who can consequently adapt and personalize target marketing for a specific user. Furthermore, personal profiles could be sold to the highest bidder, for example to one’s, employer, insurance company, bank or any other entity. On the other hand, a government finds value in personal profiles for law enforcement purposes or for the protection of national security.

To conclude, mobile phone applications are more than just a helpful tool or entertainment device. It is good to inform ourselves about the applications we are using, particularly their terms and conditions of use. Unless one has nothing to hide :)