[Editor's Note: Today's blog post is by guest author R. Michelle Green, the Principal for her company, Client Solutions. She is a combination geek girl, personal organizer, and career coach. She has studied what makes some individuals embrace or avoid information technology. (She’s definitely one of the former.) Michelle helps others improve their use of technology in their personal or professional life. Today, Michelle tackles smartphones and privacy.]
I’m thinking about buying a smartphone. Yeah, I know. The 12 pound cell phone I got in the late 70s still works, so why should I get rid of it... Kidding! I kid, I’m a kidder... In my heart I’m an early adopter, but I behave more like late majority. Part of it is, I want to know the pros and the cons of a tool before I buy it.
So of course a blog post titled, "Is your smartphone spying on you?” caught my eye. Unlike computers, smartphone transmission of information is far less visible or manipulable than data transmission on our computers. Now you want it to transmit some information. If it didn’t transmit your unique id, your phone calls wouldn’t get routed correctly. If it didn’t transmit your location, you couldn’t benefit from location-based apps like Foursquare or where or SitOrSquat.
But you probably don’t expect your blabbermouth phone to share with others your gender or your ethnicity. In fact, there are something like 100 sources of data on a smartphone, including the phone’s camera, its memory, and your contacts. And your phone doesn’t know how to shut up, says this Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article.
Every app transmits some data. That’s how the app makes itself valuable to us, the transmission of data relevant to our specific circumstance. But let’s pose the question: shouldn’t you control that transmission, or at least understand what you’re signing up for?
Apple says its apps must obtain the user’s prior permission before transmitting data, informing how the data might be used. With 300K Apple apps available (not reviewed, not rejected, but available for download), how careful can they be? Google more realistically makes no promises beyond requiring their apps to notify users what data sources the app will access. (Perhaps unrealistically, Google expects its app makers to behave responsibly.) Whereas some tools exist on computers to manage various types of cookies, those tools are absent for smartphones.
But even if you can’t stop it, you can knowledgeably choose not to download the app, right? Or else you can choose to let certain info go and not others? Right now, the answer to both those questions is no.
In examining more than 100 apps, the Wall Street Journal found lots of data flowing to lots of entities, in contravention of Apple’s or Google’s expectations. Apps like Yahoo, TextPlus4 and dictionary-reference.com took lots of personal information for themselves and for third parties. Many apps didn’t even have privacy policies available at their web sites. WSJ’s lovely analysis differentiates the worst offenders they saw, identifies what info is shared, to whom and how.
So what’s regular folk like you and I to do? At least understand the problem. Go, go now, do not stop for soda or beer, and look at "What They Know" in the Wall Street Journal’s web site. If you are a frequent reader of this blog, you already know a lot about privacy and data management on your computer, so go straight to their data about mobile devices.
Those of you with families, be sure to check the link in the upper right that focuses on data transmission from apps for children. What I particularly like about the site are the introductory tools associated with the WSJ series, offering information literally as basic as “What is a cookie?”. And I think even Edward Tufte would delight in the beautiful presentation of this complex information. If this isn’t in the Webby nominations for 2010 or '11, I’ll eat someone’s hat. There’s so much information at this site, that – ok, gotta stop, drooling on the keyboard.
As for that old dumb cell phone of mine? Turns out, as ‘low-tech’, it’s not as vulnerable to some high-tech problems. But when I do get a smartphone, I’ll listen to some of the AARP's advice. (Don’t hate, they have a nice magazine...) I’m going to have a passcode limiting casual access to the phone. I’ll take advantage of the updates that my network provider or phone manufacturer offers, so as they repair vulnerabilities, I benefit. And just as I’m very hesitant to click a link in an email message, I’ll think twice before clicking links in messages on my smartphone.
The new smartphones are computers, and just like your laptop or desktop, your pad or tablet – someone’s selling code right now to hack it. Hell, they’re giving it away.
© 2011. R. Michelle Green. Reprinted with permission.