Mobile Privacy: Protecting Personal Data inToday's Digital World

By: Alec Main

When it comes to consumer privacy, there are two types of mobile Internet user: 1) those who are nervous about it, and 2) those  who know that they should be nervous about it. Wait, what?

The mobile Internet is an amazing place full of conveniences not afforded to the hard-wired desktop. With the power of a mobile device, users have location-based services that offer up ready-access to restaurants, gas prices, weather reports, shopping deals and more. Geo-tagging of photos that you take so that you can retrace and recall your summer vacation. Screen casting of your favorite stuff onto large screens so that everyone can enjoy your vacation pictures. Step-by-step navigation to some unvisited location without the expense of proprietary GPS devices. Social media updates that follow you wherever you go and allow you to respond regardless of location. Synchronized documents, music, pictures, video, calendars, and email. Every day seems to bring a new innovation consumers can access on their mobile devices

Then what isn’t there to love about the mobile Internet? And why are people nervous?

Privacy. Privacy is not simply about security; it is about how your personal data is collected, stored, protected and used. Privacy requires trust, and trust implies a relationship of mutual respect for the handling of information shared between parties. Prior to the digital age it was possible to count on a few fingers who had access to your personal data like your doctor, your dentist, your bank, the phone company and a few other organizations that you had personal relationships with. Those days are gone. The digital age has connected us all and our information.

The devolution of our attempts to control our own privacy started before the mass adoption of the mobile Internet; it started in earnest with the advent of social networking. The age of social media has provided all of us with the tools necessary to destroy our personal privacy and yet none of us have received adequate training to help protect ourselves. We have become comfortable with sharing personal details online. Younger generations accept this as normal and are not aware of, or have not thought through, the potential consequences. Social media apps on mobile devices have extended our capability for spontaneous posting and commentary, and they have removed the time barrier that so often works as a filter or editor for our thoughts. At the time, we don’t even consider that our pictures and comments will linger in “the Cloud”, or potentially be visible to future employers or the universities that we choose to attend.

The service providers are more than happy to collect our data in order to better target their revenue-producing advertising. Mobile advertising is the primary monetizing vehicle for mobile apps. Targeting ads based on collected information helps to improve the percentage of click-throughs and actual purchases. App install referrals and in-app purchases are also significant revenue generating activities. Mobile devices simply make the whole process of sharing our private information that much easier and more timely. Ah, convenience.

How did we get here so quickly? Mobile devices are low-cost devices that are always on, always with us, that provide easy access to a broad range of free and paid-for apps. Just as the old adage goes— if you didn’t buy a product, then you are the product being sold—free apps typically exchange their “freeness” for access to the information that resides on your device like contacts, pictures, network resources, location information, phone calls and more. Do you always review the permissions granted to an app before downloading it? Have you compromised your right to privacy for the sake of being able to play that downloaded game or use that cool app? Of course you have. 

Underneath our own willingness to compromise and share, there is a platform issue that also places our private information at risk. Our smartphone devices were originally designed to support telephony for an individual. Their augmented ability to run apps and connect to networks has expanded their purpose in our daily lives. But our appetite for new apps and features has rapidly out-paced mobile devices' capability to adequately protect our information in all the new use cases that we have dreamed of for these devices. Our smartphones were never designed to be used for both work and play. These ubiquitous mobile devices were never designed to be used for mobile banking and sharing with the kids in the back seat of the van. Nor were they designed to guard our corporate email inbox while being used by a friend to look up a local restaurant.


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