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Vocapedia > Technology > Mobiles, Cell phones, Smartphones > Privacy





How iPhone and Android smartphones spy on you and how to stop them        Video        Guardian Animations        16 July 2014



about the detailed location records

stored on smartphones,

including iPhones and Android devices,

indicates just how much information

companies including Apple and Google

are able to gather.


But it's not just the phone-makers

-- apps on your phone are hungry for your personal info too.

So is your phone snooping on you?


Here, we reveal what you need to know

-- and whether you can do anything about it.































































Is Apple Right in Defying the F.B.I.?

By EMMA COTT and BEN LAFFIN        NYT | Feb. 19, 2016 | 1:33


Apple has said it will not comply with a federal court order

to unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino attackers.


Commenters online weigh privacy versus security

in an age of terrorism.
























smartphones, apps > digital privacy        USA























WhatsApp > privacy        UK












digital footprint        UK










disappearing messages        UK










encryption        USA












The Apple-FBI Debate Over Encryption        USA        2016










iPhone 6

privacy > enhanced data encryption        USA        2014


The phone encrypts

emails, photos and contacts

based on a complex

mathematical algorithm

that uses a code created by,

and unique to,

the phone’s user

— and that Apple says

it will not possess.










iPhone address book privacy        UK
































iPhone > encryption > privacy        USA














is-apple-right-in-defying-the-fbi.html - Feb. 19, 2016



















cellphones, mobile apps > privacy        USA        2010-2018





































smartphone tracking industry










GPS tracking        USA


tracking someone 24/7

with cellphone location technology










Android > privacy        UK / USA




privacy-tips-for-android-phone/ - April 28, 2020








smartphones > tracking software



running Google's Android software

collect data about the user's movements

in almost exactly the same way

as the iPhone












bins with 'cookie' technology track smartphone users        UK










supercookies        USA












Corpus of news articles


Technology > Phones


Mobiles, Cellphones, Smartphones




For Hackers,

the Next Lock to Pick


September 27, 2011

The New York Times



SAN FRANCISCO — Hackers have broken into the cellphones of celebrities like Scarlett Johansson and Prince William. But what about the rest of us, who might not have particularly salacious photos or voice messages stored in our phones, but nonetheless have e-mails, credit card numbers and records of our locations?

A growing number of companies, including start-ups and big names in computer security like McAfee, Symantec, Sophos and AVG, see a business opportunity in mobile security — protecting cellphones from hacks and malware that could read text messages, store location information or add charges directly to mobile phone bills.

On Tuesday, McAfee introduced a service for consumers to protect their smartphones, tablets and computers at once, and last week the company introduced a mobile security system for businesses. Last month, AT&T partnered with Juniper Networks to build mobile security apps for consumers and businesses. The Defense Department has called for companies and universities to come up with ways to protect Android devices from malware.

In an indication of investor interest, one start-up, Lookout, last week raised $40 million from venture capital firms, including Andreessen Horowitz, bringing its total to $76.5 million. The company makes an app that scans other apps that people download to their phones, looking for malware and viruses. It automatically tracks 700,000 mobile apps and updates Lookout whenever it finds a threat.

Still, in some ways, it’s an industry ahead of its time. Experts in mobile security agree that mobile hackers are not yet much of a threat. But that is poised to change quickly, they say, especially as people increasingly use their phones to exchange money, by mobile shopping or using digital wallets like Google Wallet.

“Unlike PCs, the chance of running into something in the wild for your phone is quite low,” said Charlie Miller, a researcher at Accuvant, a security consulting company, and a hacker who has revealed weaknesses in iPhones. “That’s partly because it’s more secure but mostly because the bad guys haven’t gotten around to it yet. But the bad guys are going to slowly follow the money over to your phones.”

Most consumers, though they protect their computers, are unaware that they need to secure their phones, he said, “but the smartphones people have are computers, and the same thing that can happen on your computer can happen on your phone.”

Cellphone users are more likely than computer users to click on dangerous links or download sketchy apps because they are often distracted, experts say. Phones can be more vulnerable because they connect to wireless networks at the gym or the coffee shop, and hackers can surreptitiously charge consumers for a purchase.

There have already been harmful attacks, most of which have originated in China, said John Hering, co-founder and chief executive of Lookout.

For example, this year, the Android market was hit by malware called DroidDream. Hackers pirated 80 applications, added malicious code and tricked users into downloading them from the Android Market. Google said 260,000 devices were attacked.

Also this year, people unwittingly downloaded other malware, called GGTracker, by clicking on links in ads, and on the Web site to which the links led. The malware signed them up, without their consent, for text message subscription services that charged $10 to $50.

Lookout says that up to a million people were afflicted by mobile malware in the first half of the year, and that the threat for Android users is two and a half times higher than it was just six months ago.

Still, other experts caution that fear is profitable for the security industry, and that consumers should be realistic about the small size of the threat at this point. AdaptiveMobile, which sells mobile security tools, found that 6 percent of smartphone users said they had received a virus, but that the actual number of confirmed viruses had not topped 2 percent.

Lookout’s founders are hackers themselves, though they say they are the good kind, who break into phones and computers to expose the risks but not to steal information or behave maliciously. “It’s very James Bond-type stuff,” Mr. Hering said.

A few years ago, he stood with a backpack filled with hacking gear near the Academy Awards red carpet and discovered that up to 100 of the stars carried, in their bejeweled clutches and tuxedo pockets, cellphones that he could break into. He did not break into the phones, but publicized his ability to do so.

He started Lookout in 2007, along with Kevin Mahaffey and James Burgess, to prevent such intrusions. It has free apps for Android, BlackBerry and Windows phones, but not for iPhones. They are less vulnerable to attacks, security experts say, because Apple’s app store, unlike Android’s, screens every app before accepting it. Also, Android is the fastest-growing mobile platform, so it is more attractive to hackers.

Google says it regularly scans apps in the Android Market for malware and can rapidly remove malicious apps from the market and from people’s phones. It prevents Android apps from accessing other apps and alerts users if an app accesses its contact list or location, for instance.

Lookout also sells a paid version for $3 a month, which scans apps for privacy intrusions like accessing a user’s contact list, alerts users if they visit unsafe mobile Web sites or click on unsafe links in text messages, backs up a phone’s call history and photos, and lets people lock or delete information from lost devices.

T-Mobile builds Lookout into its Android phones, Verizon uses its technology to screen apps in its app store and Sprint markets the app to customers. The cellphone carriers and Lookout share the revenue when a user upgrades to the paid version.

“In mobile security circles, you never wait on it to become a problem and it’s too late,” said Fared Adib, vice president of product development at Sprint.

Meanwhile, because mobile phone attacks are still relatively rare, Lookout’s free app includes tools, including a way to back up a user’s contacts and a feature that enables users to turn on an alarm on their phone when it is lost.

“You’re way more likely to just leave it in a cab than you are going to be attacked by a hacker,” said Mr. Miller, the security researcher.

And in addition to collecting money from paying subscribers, Lookout plans to sell the service to businesses. It has a chance because consumers are increasingly bringing their own technologies into the workplace, and Lookout’s app is consumer-friendly, said Chenxi Wang, a security analyst at Forrester Research.

“It’s something a lot of I.T. guys are worried about because they have no control over what consumers are doing and what these apps are doing,” Ms. Wang said.

Giovanni Vigna, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara who studies security and malware, said it was only a matter of time before mobile security was as second nature to consumers as computer security.

“The moment malware starts using text messages and expensive minutes people have to pay for, things will move a lot faster,” he said.

For Hackers, the Next Lock to Pick,






Cellphones Become

the World’s Eyes and Ears

on Protests


February 18, 2011
The New York Times


For some of the protesters facing Bahrain’s heavily armed security forces in and around Pearl Square in Manama, the most powerful weapon against shotguns and tear gas has been the tiny camera inside their cellphones.

By uploading images of this week’s violence in Manama, the capital, to Web sites like YouTube and yFrog, and then sharing them on Facebook and Twitter, the protesters upstaged government accounts and drew worldwide attention to their demands.

A novelty less than a decade ago, the cellphone camera has become a vital tool to document the government response to the unrest that has spread through the Middle East and North Africa.

Recognizing the power of such documentation, human rights groups have published guides and provided training on how to use cellphone cameras effectively.

“You finally have a video technology that can fit into the palm of one person’s hand, and what the person can capture can end up around the world,” said James E. Katz, director of the Rutgers Center for Mobile Communication Studies. “This is the dagger at the throat of the creaky old regimes that, through the manipulation of these old centralized technologies, have been able to smother the public’s voice.”

In Tunisia, cellphones were used to capture video images of the first protests in Sidi Bouzid in December, which helped spread unrest to other parts of the country. The uploaded images also prompted producers at Al Jazeera, the satellite television network, to begin focusing on the revolt, which toppled the Tunisian government in mid-January and set the stage for the demonstrations in Egypt.

While built-in cameras have been commercially available in cellphones since the late 1990s, it was not until the tsunami that struck southeast Asia on Dec. 26, 2004, and the London subway bombings the following July that news organizations began to take serious note of the outpouring of images and videos created and posted by nonprofessionals. Memorably, in June 2009, cellphone videos of the shooting death of a young woman in Tehran known as Nedawere uploaded on YouTube, galvanizing the Iranian opposition and rocketing around the world.

Now, news organizations regularly seek out, sift and publish such images. Authenticating them remains a challenge, since photos can be easily altered by computers and old videos can resurface again, purporting to be new. YouTube is using Storyful, a news aggregation site, to help manage the tens of thousands of videos that have been uploaded from the Middle East in recent weeks and to highlight notable ones on the CitizenTube channel.

But journalists are not the only conduits. Cellphone images are increasingly being shared between users on mobile networks and social networking sites, and they are being broadly consumed on Web sites that aggregate video and images.

The hosting Web sites have reported increases both in submissions from the Middle East and in visitors viewing the content.

Among the sites, Bambuser has stood out as a way to stream video. Mans Adler, the site’s co-founder, said it had 15,000 registered users in Egypt, most of whom signed up just before last November’s election. He said there were more than 10,000 videos on the site that were produced around the time of the election, focusing on activity at the polls, in what appeared to be an organized effort.

Afterward, the level of activity settled down to 800 to 2,000 videos a day, but then soared back to 10,000 a day again when the mass protests erupted in Egypt last month, he said.

In Bahrain, the government has blocked access to Bambuser.

At training sessions to help activists use their cameras, Bassem Samir, the executive director of the Egyptian Democratic Academy, said that improving the quality of the images and video was a high priority.

“Videos are stories,” said Mr. Samir. “What happened on the 25th and 28th of January, it’s a story. It’s like a story of people who were asking for freedom and democracy, and we had, like, five or three minutes to tell it.”


Robert Mackey contributed reporting.

   Cellphones Become the World’s Eyes and Ears on Protests,
    NYT, 18.2.2011,






Tell-All PCs and Phones

Transforming Divorce


September 15, 2007
The New York Times


The age-old business of breaking up has taken a decidedly Orwellian turn, with digital evidence like e-mail messages, traces of Web site visits and mobile telephone records now permeating many contentious divorce cases.

Spurned lovers steal each other’s BlackBerrys. Suspicious spouses hack into each other’s e-mail accounts. They load surveillance software onto the family PC, sometimes discovering shocking infidelities.

Divorce lawyers routinely set out to find every bit of private data about their clients’ adversaries, often hiring investigators with sophisticated digital forensic tools to snoop into household computers.

“In just about every case now, to some extent, there is some electronic evidence,” said Gaetano Ferro, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, who also runs seminars on gathering electronic evidence. “It has completely changed our field.”

Privacy advocates have grown increasingly worried that digital tools are giving governments and powerful corporations the ability to peek into peoples’ lives as never before. But the real snoops are often much closer to home.

“Google and Yahoo may know everything, but they don’t really care about you,” said Jacalyn F. Barnett, a Manhattan-based divorce lawyer. “No one cares more about the things you do than the person that used to be married to you.”

Most of these stories do not end amicably. This year, a technology consultant from the Philadelphia area, who did not want his name used because he has a teenage son, strongly suspected his wife was having an affair. Instead of confronting her, the husband installed a $49 program called PC Pandora on her computer, a laptop he had purchased.

The program surreptitiously took snapshots of her screen every 15 seconds and e-mailed them to him. Soon he had a comprehensive overview of the sites she visited and the instant messages she was sending. Since the program captured her passwords, the husband was also able to get access to and print all the e-mail messages his wife had received and sent over the previous year.

What he discovered ended his marriage. For 11 months, he said, she had been seeing another man — the parent of one of their son’s classmates at a private school outside Philadelphia. The husband said they were not only arranging meetings but also posting explicit photos of themselves on the Web and soliciting sex with other couples.

The husband, who like others in this article was reached through his lawyer, said the decision to invade his wife’s privacy was not an easy one. “If I were to tell you I have a pure ethical conscience over what I did, I’d be lying,” he said. But he also pointed to companies that have Internet policies giving them the right to read employee e-mail messages. “When you’re in a relationship like a marriage, which is emotional as well as, candidly, a business, I think you can look at it in the same way,” he said.

When considering invading their spouse’s privacy, husbands and wives cite an overriding desire to find out some secret. One woman described sensing last year that her husband, a Manhattan surgeon, was distant and overly obsessed with his BlackBerry.

She drew him a bubble bath on his birthday and then pounced on the device while he was in the tub. In his e-mail messages, she found evidence of an affair with a medical resident, including plans for them to meet that night.

A few weeks later, after the couple had tried to reconcile, the woman gained access to her husband’s America Online account (he had shared his password with her) and found messages from a mortgage company. It turned out he had purchased a $3 million Manhattan condominium, where he intended to continue his liaison.

“Every single time I looked at his e-mail I felt nervous,” the woman said. “But I did anyway because I wanted to know the truth.”

Being on the receiving end of electronic spying can be particularly disturbing. Jolene Barten-Bolender, a 45-year-old mother of three who lives in Dix Hills, N.Y., said that she was recently informed by AOL and Google, on the same day, that the passwords had been changed on two e-mail accounts she was using, suggesting that someone had gained access and was reading her messages. Last year, she discovered a Global Positioning System, or G.P.S., tracking device in a wheel well of the family car.

She suspects her husband of 24 years, whom she is divorcing.

“It makes me feel nauseous and totally violated,” Ms. Barten-Bolender said, speculating that he was trying to find out if she was seeing anyone. “Once anything is written down, you have to know it could be viewed by someone looking to invade or hurt you.”

Ms. Barten-Bolender’s husband and his lawyer declined to discuss her allegations.

Divorce lawyers say their files are filled with cases like these. Three-quarters of the cases of Nancy Chemtob, a divorce lawyer in Manhattan, now involve some kind of electronic communications. She says she routinely asks judges for court orders to seize and copy the hard drives in the computers of her clients’ spouses, particularly if there is an opportunity to glimpse a couple’s full financial picture, or a parent’s suitability to be the custodian of the children.

Lawyers must navigate a complex legal landscape governing the admissibility of this kind of electronic evidence. Different laws define when it is illegal to get access to information stored on a computer in the home, log into someone else’s e-mail account, or listen in on phone calls.

Divorce lawyers say, however, if the computer in question is shared by the whole family, or couples have revealed their passwords to each other, reading a spouse’s e-mail messages and introducing them as evidence in a divorce case is often allowed.

Lynne Z. Gold-Bikin, a Pennsylvania divorce lawyer, describes one client, a man, who believed his wife was engaging in secret online correspondence. He found e-mail messages to a lover in Australia that she had sent from a private AOL account on the family computer. Her lawyer then challenged the use of this evidence in court. Ms. Gold-Bikin’s client won the dispute and an advantageous settlement.

Lawyers say the only communications that are consistently protected in a spouse’s private e-mail account are the messages to and from the lawyers themselves, which are covered by lawyer-client privilege.

Perhaps for this reason, divorce lawyers as a group are among the most pessimistic when it comes to assessing the overall state of privacy in the digital age.

“I do not like to put things on e-mail,” said David Levy, a Chicago divorce lawyer. “There’s no way it’s private. Nothing is fully protected once you hit the send button.”

Ms. Chemtob added, “People have an expectation of privacy that is completely unrealistic.”

James Mulvaney agrees. A private investigator, Mr. Mulvaney now devotes much of his time to poking through the computer records of divorcing spouses, on behalf of divorce lawyers. One of his specialties is retrieving files, like bank records and e-mail messages to secret lovers, that a spouse has tried to delete.

“Every keystroke on your computer is there, forever and ever,” Mr. Mulvaney said.

He had one bit of advice. “The only thing you can truly erase these things with is a specialty Smith & Wesson product,” he said. “Throw your computer into the air and play skeet with it.”

    Tell-All PCs and Phones Transforming Divorce, NYT, 15.9.2007,






Privacy Lost:

These Phones Can Find You


October 23, 2007
The New York Times


Two new questions arise, courtesy of the latest advancement in cellphone technology: Do you want your friends, family, or colleagues to know where you are at any given time? And do you want to know where they are?

Obvious benefits come to mind. Parents can take advantage of the Global Positioning System chips embedded in many cellphones to track the whereabouts of their phone-toting children.

And for teenagers and 20-somethings, who are fond of sharing their comings and goings on the Internet, youth-oriented services like Loopt and Buddy Beacon are a natural next step.

Sam Altman, the 22-year-old co-founder of Loopt, said he came up with the idea in early 2005 when he walked out of a lecture hall at Stanford.

“Two hundred students all pulled out their cellphones, called someone and said, ‘Where are you?’ ” he said. “People want to connect.”

But such services point to a new truth of modern life: If G.P.S. made it harder to get lost, new cellphone services are now making it harder to hide.

“There are massive changes going on in society, particularly among young people who feel comfortable sharing information in a digital society,” said Kevin Bankston, a staff lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation based in San Francisco.

“We seem to be getting into a period where people are closely watching each other,” he said. “There are privacy risks we haven’t begun to grapple with.”

But the practical applications outweigh the worries for some converts.

Kyna Fong, a 24-year-old Stanford graduate student, uses Loopt, offered by Sprint Nextel. For $2.99 a month, she can see the location of friends who also have the service, represented by dots on a map on her phone, with labels identifying their names. They can also see where she is.

One night last summer she noticed on Loopt that friends she was meeting for dinner were 40 miles away, and would be late. Instead of waiting, Ms. Fong arranged her schedule to arrive when they did. “People don’t have to ask ‘Where are you?’” she said.

Ms. Fong can control whom she shares the service with, and if at any point she wants privacy, Ms. Fong can block access. Some people are not invited to join — like her mother.

“I don’t know if I’d want my mom knowing where I was all the time,” she said.

Some situations are not so clear-cut. What if a spouse wants some time alone and turns off the service? Why on earth, their better half may ask, are they doing that?

What if a boss asks an employee to use the service?

So far, the market for social-mapping is nascent — users number in the hundreds of thousands, industry experts estimate.

But almost 55 percent of all mobile phones sold today in the United States have the technology that makes such friend-and- family-tracking services possible, according to Current Analysis, which follows trends in technology.

So far, it is most popular, industry executives say, among the college set.

But others have found different uses. Mr. Altman said one customer bought it to keep track of a parent with Alzheimer’s. Helio, a mobile phone service provider that offers Buddy Beacon, said some small-business owners use it to track employees.

Consumers can turn off their service, making them invisible to people in their social-mapping network. Still, the G.P.S. service embedded in the phone means that your whereabouts are not a complete mystery.

“There is a Big Brother component,” said Charles S. Golvin, a wireless analyst at Forrester Research. “The thinking goes that if my friends can find me, the telephone company knows my location all the time, too.”

Phone companies say they are aware of the potential problems such services could cause.

If a friend-finding service is viewed as too intrusive, said Mark Collins, vice president for consumer data at AT&T’s wireless unit, “that is a negative for us.” Loopt and similar services say they do not keep electronic records of people’s whereabouts.

Mr. Altman of Loopt said that to protect better against unwelcome prying by, say, a former friend, Loopt users are sent text messages at random times, asking if they recognize a certain friend. If not, that person’s viewing ability is disabled.

Clay Harris, a 25-year-old freelance marketing executive in Memphis, says he uses Helio’s Buddy Beacon mostly to keep in touch with his friend Gregory Lotz. One night when Mr. Lotz was returning from a trip, Mr. Harris was happy to see his friend show up unannounced at a bar where he and some other friends had gathered.

“He had tried to reach me, but I didn’t hear my phone ring,” Mr. Harris said. “He just showed up and I thought, ‘Wow, this is great.’”

He would never think to block Mr. Lotz. But he would think twice before inviting a girlfriend into his social-mapping network. “Most definitely a girl would ask and wonder why I was blocking her,” he said.

    Privacy Lost: These Phones Can Find You, NYT, 23.10.2007,






Digital Domain

Cellphone as Tracker:

X Marks Your Doubts


November 19, 2006
The New York Times


THE diminutive cellphone is turning out to be the most clever of devices. As it connects to more networks, stores more kinds of data, delivers more kinds of entertainment — wherever we happen to be — it effectively becomes the most personal computer we own.

Now, as more of the handsets are equipped to use the Global Positioning System, the satellite-based navigation network, we are on the verge of enjoying services made possible only when information is matched automatically to location. Maps on our phones will always know where we are. Our children can’t go missing. Movie listings will always be for the closest theaters; restaurant suggestions, organized by proximity. We will even have the option of choosing free cellphone service if we agree to accept ads focused on nearby businesses.

None of this entails anything exotic. The technology has been ready for a while, but not the customers. Prospective benefits have seemed paltry when placed against privacy concerns. Who will have access to our location information — present and past? Can carriers assure us that their systems are impervious to threats from stalkers and other malicious intruders or neglectful employees — or from government snoops without search warrants? Contemplating worst-case scenarios, our hands holding these very mobile devices have been frozen, hesitant to turn the location beacon on. Are we finally ready to flip the switch?

Two wireless providers recently made separate announcements about new positioning services, betting that the time has arrived. Two weeks ago, Helio — a wireless service owned jointly by SK Telecom, a South Korean cellphone company, and EarthLink, the American Internet service provider — introduced the Buddy Beacon in its new phone, the Drift, which costs $225. With the press of a button, the Drift shows on a map the location of up to 25 friends — if each is also carrying a $225 Drift.

Last week, Boost Mobile, a unit of Sprint, and its technology partner, Loopt, unveiled Boost Loopt, a similar offering described as a “social mapping service.”

Both Helio and Boost Mobile market exclusively and unapologetically to a young clientele. “We’re not going after soccer moms and businesspeople,” Helio’s C.E.O., the veteran entrepreneur Sky Dayton, said last week. Freedom — to be a hedonist — is the leitmotif in its materials. “Have a party,” Helio’s Web site says invitingly, “not a search party.”

The Buddy Beacon serves at your pleasure, for your pleasure. “Turn it on when you’re up for a party;” turn it off when you need “a night of privacy.” A press release anticipates your feeling the urge to “slip out the back of the club into the V.I.P. room.” (Yes! All the time!) In such instances, the beacon goes off.

Social mapping on cellphones is not all that new; it is just the next stage in social networking. Dodgeball.com, which has been operating since 2004, should be credited as a predecessor: a Dodgeball member uses a cellphone to send in a text message about his or her whereabouts, and notifications are then sent automatically to the member’s circle of friends. ( Google acquired the company last year.)

But Dodgeball can’t update a change of location automatically. With G.P.S.-equipped handsets, the Beacon Buddy could remedy this shortcoming, but Helio elected not to enable automatic updates: a user must push a button to refresh the phone’s location. “We didn’t want a situation where someone left their Buddy Beacon on and didn’t know it,” Mr. Dayton said. When the marketplace is more familiar with the service, he added, it may introduce an auto-updating option.

Boost Loopt’s service has offered its first-generation users an option to automatically send current coordinates every 15 to 20 minutes. Anticipating potential security problems, it urges its users to admit only “good and trusted friends” into the closed circle that can follow their movements.

Loopt suggests that all prospective invitees pass a number of tests of trustworthiness: Do you have their phone numbers? Do you know where they live and where they grew up? Would you lend them your car? Would you give them your house keys to feed your dog?

Verizon Wireless has decided to hold off on social mapping. The only G.P.S.-based program it now offers is a navigation service. Jeffrey Nelson, a company spokesman, said Verizon was interested in social networks but felt the need to “give a lot of thought to privacy and safety issues.”

Using a hypothetical 16-year-old customer to illustrate risks, Mr. Nelson said it was one thing for the customer to imprudently send out her e-mail address to a stranger, and still another for her phone to reveal her home’s location. “If suddenly a bright light goes on above your house, saying, ‘This is me; this is where I am,’ you’ve lost privacy and anonymity in your home,” he said.

The tattered condition of the wireless industry’s reputation for privacy protection — which was not helped by the recent Hewlett-Packard pretexting scandal involving phone logs — is not entirely the industry’s doing. Not so long ago, industry players acted together to try to secure the Federal Communications Commission’s help to tighten — yes, tighten — rules governing the privacy of location information. It was the F.C.C. that let us all down, then and now.

Six years ago, the business potential of so-called mobile commerce was making investors swoon the way online social networks bedazzle them today. To many, this m-commerce — from on-the-go “concierge services” to location-specific ads — was poised to exceed PC-based e-commerce. And that was when there were 106 million cellphones in use in the United States, versus 227 million today, according to CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade group.

But the potential of m-commerce could be realized only if consumers had ironclad assurance that, except in emergencies, the service provider would never use location information unless they expressly gave consent. The industry acknowledged that customers who received unsolicited ads keyed to their movements would have perfectly legitimate privacy concerns.

CTIA-The Wireless Association petitioned the F.C.C. to draft rules guaranteeing basic privacy protections, like requiring that customers give explicit consent before any information was disclosed to third parties and that all location information be protected from unauthorized access. When the F.C.C. considered the request in 2002, it declined to act, arguing that existing legislation was enough.

One commissioner, Michael J. Copps, dissented. He pointed out the rarity of a group in this industry seeking stricter rules for its members. That it would do so, he said, showed that the statutory language had not resolved all questions relating to the handling of customers’ location information.

The Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act of 1999, known as the 911 Act, requires that customers deliberately choose to have location information collected. But some wondered whether customers gave “implied consent” just by using the service.

Even the definition of what constituted “location information” was in dispute. Cingular maintained that the location of the nearest cell tower was not, strictly speaking, the customer’s location information, and so was not encompassed by the 911 Act.

Mr. Copps pleaded that the commission “put in some sweat now” to create the clarifying rules “before consumers make up their minds about whether they trust location practices.” His plea went unheeded; the F.C.C. has remained inert.


LEGISLATION that provides stronger protection of location information will come, said David M. Mark, a professor of geography at the State University of New York, Buffalo. But, he added, it would probably take a “horrific incident involving a celebrity” before legislators paid attention.

The Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988 was passed after the video rental records of the Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork were made public. Let us hope that no one, famous or not, will be hurt because a cellphone’s location was improperly leaked; one famous person in one headline, however, could lead to swift passage of a Location Privacy Protection Act of 2007.

The stronger the protection of cellphone location data, the faster the public will accept the new positioning services. The best policy would be to require by statute that carriers continually purge location data. If location history is never stored, the possibility of mishandling or theft of that information is removed.

When families adopt positioning cellphone services, a new problem will likely emerge, Professor Mark said. The very act of turning off one’s location beacon may itself be seen as suspicious. “If you don’t want your location known,” he asked, “does that mean you intend to do something improper?”

Randall Stross is an author based in Silicon Valley

and a professor of business

at San Jose State University.

Cellphone as Tracker: X Marks Your Doubts,










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