The Private Computer: Mobile Users Wary About Sharing, Tracking


Credit: Corbis / Brooks Kraft

A recent survey from TRUSTe, the Web privacy consulting company, shows that while there’s no denying that modern mobile users are addicted to their smartphones and tablets, they are more skittish about privacy concerns when it comes to doing many of the same things they’ll do from their regular PC.

It’s an interesting time for a mobile privacy discussion in the wake of disclosures last week that Apple’s iPhone contains a file that maintains a record of a user’s location, with privacy advocates and oversharers alike contemplating what types of standards are appropriate for mobile devices. However, according to Fran Maier, president of TRUSTe, a fair amount of people already self-regulate their activity on mobile devices by refusing to share their location with Web sites or apps that ask permission and shunning the types of photo-sharing apps that have the social butterflies all excited.

“The fact it’s attached to them, that it has the location aspects to it, and that it’s interacting with publishers and app developers, they know they should be paying more attention,” Maier said in an interview with mocoNews highlighting the results. “They guard it a lot more as a personal item.”

TRUSTe surveyed 1,000 U.S. smartphone owners in February, and found that 46 percent of respondents consider the privacy of their mobile device “extremely important,” and that 42 percent thought knowing what types of information is being collected by mobile apps is likewise “extremely important.” In line with those responses, smartphone owners in the survey were not very interested in sharing anything with third parties or even app developers beyond their gender, name, and e-mail address. Just 17 percent said they would be willing to share photos or video with a mobile app developer, and only 42 percent said they would be willing to share their location.

Amazingly, half the respondents said they have read the privacy policies associated with mobile apps, which seems akin to the number of people who claim they floss twice a day while sitting in the dentist chair. If you think privacy policies are too long to read while browsing on your PC, imagine how you feel when confronted with such a huge document on a small mobile screen, Maier said. “Traditional privacy policies don’t work on phones,” she said.

Other findings:

–iPhone owners are much more likely to share their location with app developers, with 54 percent saying they share their location all of the time or at least some of the time. By contrast, 38 percent of Android users answered the same way while just 13 percent of BlackBerry users were willing to share their location. Overall, 35 percent said they “always” or “sometimes” shared their location, and 22 percent said they “rarely” shared their location.

–About four out of ten respondents felt that their mobile apps safeguarded their privacy, but about 7 out of ten thought they were being tracked by mobile advertising. That was a bit surprising, Maier said, given that mobile advertising targeting isn’t nearly as sophisticated as it is for the PC-based Web.

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