Smart Phone Apps May Pose Privacy Risk for Consumers


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By Consumers Union on Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

Almost half the American adult population has a smart phone, according to a 2012 study. Due to price, smart phones have, for many, become their only computer. This year mobile phones will overtake PCs as the most common Web access device worldwide, research firm Gartner predicts.


Cell phones used to be big bricks that could only make calls, but today applications (“apps”) allow smart phones to perform myriad tasks. Apps are everywhere. There are approximately a million apps for sale through the Apple App Store; 48.6 million apps are downloaded from it a day. Apps make life easier: they help you locate the nearest bus stop or let you deposit a check from home, or do a million other things that used to take a lot more time and effort.


But what you might not know is that smart phone apps may pose risks to your privacy. These risks may be from malware that can infect your mobile device, but they also include less obvious threats, such as the collection and sharing of your personal information and location data.


Some apps collect only what’s needed to function, while others mine deeper. This information may be collected and shared without you even knowing it. That’s what appears to have happened to kids using the “SpongeBob Diner Dash” app – which, if true, violates the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. While there are laws protecting children’s online privacy, only California requires mobile apps to include notices when personally identifiable information is being collected.


Consumers have indicated that they are concerned about their mobile privacy. In a 2012 Pew Research Center report, more than half of app users said that they have uninstalled or avoided apps because they were concerned about their privacy.


So what’s being done to protect your mobile privacy? In the past several years, the federal government and several states have established entities solely focused on privacy issues. Two have recently released reports with recommendations on best privacy practices for mobile platforms, app developers, and advertising networks. The Federal Trade Commission’s report on Mobile Privacy Disclosures and the California Attorney General’s Privacy on the Go: Recommendations for the Mobile Ecosystem from January cover similar ground, calling for privacy protections to be integrated into apps before they reach consumers. These recommendations are voluntary, and there is no industry standard for protecting consumers’ mobile privacy.


For consumers interested in learning more about mobile apps and privacy, the government’s website,, has a great overview, Understanding Mobile Apps. You can access it here.


We are continuing to monitor the mobile landscape and would love to hear about your experiences with smart phone apps and privacy. Has your mobile privacy been violated? Share your story!


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