Privacy In The Smartphone Era

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about iPhone and Android apps and how many of them are transmitting data to third parties. The Journal tested 101 apps and found the majority of them transmitted some data to third parties. Included with the article is a break down of all the apps they tested and exactly what type of data they transmit.

My first reaction to the article is that it is a bit sensationalistic, but after further thought I don’t think I would go as far as Warner Crocker, who claims the article needlessly raises privacy hackles. The Journal article is sharing the results of a study they conducted as well as the results of the follow-up they did with some of the developers of the applications, but it doesn’t draw any conclusions.

Truth is that smartphones combine the power of a PC with the power of knowing where it is located. All mobile phones transmit its location to the cellular network, and therefore if you are carrying any mobile phone that is turned on and connected, your location can be traced through that phone. Smartphones, however, run software that can also retrieve the phone’s location and that software is capable of transmitting the location information, as well as other information, to any destination on the Internet.

If you look at the data from the Journal article, you see that almost all of the apps transmit the phone’s ID to third parties. It is most likely that many of those applications run mobile ads, and the phone ID is being sent to the mobile ad network. People who do not want to pay for mobile apps need to understand that the consequence of using free, ad-supported apps is that data about your phone, and possibly data about you, is being transmitted to the ad networks.

As it currently stands, there are no laws that make it illegal for apps to transmit such information, nor am I suggesting that such laws ought to exist. However, anyone who owns or is considering owning a smartphone should understand that the capability exists and right now the only way to be completely confident that such information about you is not sent to anyone else is to not use a smartphone. I expect that discussion about smartphones and privacy will continue to occur and is likely to lead to some legislation, but until that happens buyers need to be informed.