Welcome to the mobile privacy minefield

Michael

The new bogeyman of data privacy is the mobile industry. The only surprise is that the focus didn’t fall on it sooner, given the part mobile devices now play in our day-to-day lives.

Six technology companies – Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, HP and Research in Motion – have just signed up to a voluntary agreement promising to tell users more about what mobile apps will do with their data. That’s after a string of negative stories about apps importing entire contact lists from users’ phones without an explicit warning.

And it’s not only the mobile manufacturers who are waking up to the incipient danger. So, it seems are the operators. I received a call this week from a market researcher asking for my reactions to what sounds like a new privacy policy from Vodafone. It promises to go beyond minimum regulations in ensuring customers’ privacy, and to allow them easily to opt out of services at any time from one permissions centre.

Vodafone’s press office couldn’t confirm or deny that it had drafted the policy, so the survey might be purely the speculative work of a research firm. But the fact that someone is canvassing views on a mobile operator’s privacy policy is enough to suggest that the market is on high alert.

And so it should be, because the general public is only just starting to learn what data companies could access from their mobile devices. As well as the personal information in their contact books, most smartphones are now fitted with technology to pinpoint the user’s location.

Whether or not you switch location services on within an app, location data is often available to your operator and handset manufacturer. Even where this data is held anonymously, it doesn’t take long to work out who someone is from their movements, should the data be lost. And plenty more can be learned too.

When your phone stays in one place for long periods of time at night, it’s fairly obvious that’s where you sleep – so it’s probably your home. Long periods stationary in the daytime indicate the workplace. If you travel to and from the same location several times a week and spend significant time there, it’s probably the home of a girlfriend, boyfriend or immediate family member.

Companies aren’t collecting this data because they’re evil. It’s because they hope to provide new location-based services that consumers will want.

But mobile privacy will be the next big minefield, and it could be explosive for brands’ reputations. The industry needs to start explaining to consumers what data it collects, what it keeps and what it does with it. Only then can it start to argue the benefits.

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