How much do our smartphones know about us? | KALW

How much do our smartphones know about us?

Nov 21, 2011

Smartphones bring us streaming audio, directions to where we're going, instant connections with our friends and family. But an increasing number of experts are sounding an alarm that smartphones may as well be called spyphones.

One concerned group is the San Francisco-based Center for Technology and Democracy, which sent a representative to testify in Congress at recent hearings investigating privacy issues by Apple and Google. Jim Dempsey is Vice President of Public Policy at the CTD and he spoke with KALW's Hana Baba.

HANA BABA: So Jim, here's my smartphone. I just love my maps and my Yelp. What's wrong with that?

JIM DEMPSEY: You’ve stated the conundrum exactly, which is we love these services. We love the convenience. We love the immediacy of them. The flip side of it is, it’s not just between you and the satellite. That data which enters your phone in essence from the satellite, then your phone sends out to these different applications.

So, when you use Google Maps, your location information is going to Google Maps, that's how it shows up again on your screen. Now in some cases, Yelp, you look at that and you say, "Well, there's a pretty reputable company, I know them, they've got a pretty good brand name." Some of the other apps on your phone, you loaded them up four months ago, five months ago when you got the phone. You did it in a second, it took practically no time at all. You may even have checked yes, or said yes I agree you can get my location information, and then you forget about it. Sometimes you leave those apps in the background and they might be continuing to take your location information.

The Wall Street Journal did a survey and found that a number of the apps, some of the game apps for example, were taking location when it wasn't even really needed, or were taking location even without giving you adequate notice that that's what was happening. That Wall Street Journal series I think did lead to some improvement in practices, but it was all at the sort of self-regulatory level, without any real assurance on the part of consumers that there is any uniformity to the practice.

BABA: Senator Al Franken summoned the heads of Apple and Google to a congressional hearing on the issue of Smartphone privacy, and the concern as we said, is that they use location data to deliver this targeted advertising. So we’re going to listen to a clip from that hearing:

AL FRANKEN: This technology gives us incredible benefits: it allows parents to see their kids and wish them goodnight, even when they are halfway around the world. It allows a lost driver to get directions, and it allows emergency responders to locate a crash victim in a matter of seconds.

But the same information that allows those responders to locate us when we’re in trouble is not necessarily information all of us want to share all the time with the entire world. And yet reports suggest that the information on our mobile devices is not being protected in the way that it should be.

BABA: Now the companies say there’s no reason to be concerned, we don’t track user locations, we never have. Did you trust that testimony?

DEMPSEY: Well, it’s not so much, did I trust it or not, I think you have to be very careful in asking the right question to get the right answer. At the time, Apple was under particular scrutiny for a location data file that was stored on the phone, which was uncovered by some researchers. And Apple said, "We don’t track users." What they mean is, they don’t track users in what Apple considers to be an identifiable form. There’s no doubt though, that the iPhone does send your location information to Apple, and Apple uses that to build out their map of WiFi HotSpots and cell phone towers to basically map those infrastructure elements to street address or to GPS coordinates, latitude and longitude coordinates...

BABA: And what they’re saying is your name is not on it.

DEMPSEY: Exactly. Now, when that data was created your name wasn’t on it but the identifying information of your cell phone was. I think Apple says that they don’t keep that.

BABA: Okay, I'm going to give you my cell phone, at first glimpse, anything? I have my Yelp...

DEMPSEY: Well, right away, you’ve got Facebook and Facebook has one of the most complicated interfaces and one of the most powerful interfaces. And Facebook has put a lot of effort, for good reason, into building relationships with other services and other service providers, other sharing websites. They’ve spent a lot of time trying to improve their privacy notices, but they are still not quite there yet fully in terms of user awareness. And it does take an educated user. Not all of this can go on the companies, or on the law.

BABA: How many consumers can be even qualified as educated users?

DEMPSEY: Very few. Very few. We try to say to people, "Pay attention to what you're downloading. Actually spend some time looking at the privacy controls." Facebook does, for example, offer privacy settings. You really need to spend a little bit of time digging in on those. Apple says that for location-based apps in the Apple Store, nothing is supposed to get through, or get approved, unless it requires affirmative opt-in for sharing location information. We think that the preferred way to do that is that each time information is about to be shared, there should be some notification to the consumer of, "Yes, I do want this," or not.

BABA: Do you have a smartphone?

DEMPSEY: I do. I have a Blackberry 2.

BABA: You have a Blackberry?


BABA: And so?

DEMPSEY: I love the location services...

BABA: You?!

DEMPSEY: Yes! Because it’s like, nowadays, how can you live without it? They’re very convenient for a whole variety of kinds of applications.

BABA: But you’re not concerned for yourself?

DEMPSEY: I’m concerned, but I think I'm like the rest of the public, which is we are worried, I’m worried, but I do know that my information in some ways is uncontrolled, I know that the government can get access to it under very low standards, but it's hard to live without it.

This story originally aired on July 21, 2011.