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Sarah Jaffe: Is Your Mobile Phone Transmitting Your Private Information to Corporations?

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Our mobile phones and computers are storing and sharing more and more personal information—but do we have control over who sees it?

By **Sarah Jaffe**

By arrangement with Alternet.Org.

As mobile phone technology becomes more and more powerful, and people become more and more dependent upon mobile phones for work, navigation, connection and entertainment, these little devices are privy to more and more of our personal information. It’s not just laptop computers, ever smaller, lighter, and more portable, that are used for social networking as well as business. Mobile applications for social networks, from Facebook and Twitter to apps specially developed for mobile phones, like FourSquare, are learning more and more about our lives, from where we go to who we go with to what we do when we’re there. 

That makes the corporations providing these services very happy, but it has been a cause for concern for users and privacy advocates for a while—and now politicians are starting to take notice, too.

California’s State Senate voted last week on a bill, SB242, called the Social Networking Privacy Act. The bill, introduced by Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, faced fierce resistance from a coalition of Internet companies including Facebook, Twitter, Google, Skype, and The vote on the bill was 16-16, not enough to pass, but Corbett has said she’ll reintroduce it.

The bill would require sites to let users set their privacy settings before posting information to a social networking site, and would also make the default “private,” so that users would have to opt into sharing their information, rather than opting out.

It’s not just personal photos and snarky comments that need protecting. One of the biggest concerns is that social networking sites and applications have access to all sorts of user data stored on a personal computer or mobile phone. “Mobile phones are repositories for all sorts of information,” Chris Conley, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, told me. “They contain far, far more than anything we used to carry around.”

It can be hard to tell the difference between Luddite-style concern about social media depersonalizing us, changing us into button-clicking automatons, and genuine worries about corporate control of our private information.

Social networking sites especially are using information from mobile phones to provide more personalized services, and location-based applications have been especially hot lately. More and more sites are imitating FourSquare’s “Check in” procedure, where users tell the site (and their friends) that they’ve stopped at a bar, shop or restaurant.

“Location information isn’t just a spot on a map,” Conley said. “All sorts of details about people’s lives can come out.”

It recently came to light that Apple’s mobile devices (and Google Android devices as well) were storing that user location data without users’ permission or knowledge, and keeping it in a secret file on your phone.

You might not have known the file existed—but law enforcement officials do, and companies are already hard at work creating and marketing programs that can break into your private information, according toCNet. The Michigan ACLU has been trying to get information for years on the Michigan State Police’s use of devices that can quickly download information from mobile phones.

And of course, it recently came to light that at the U.S. border, the Fourth Amendment no longer applies. Customs and immigration officers have the right to search and seize laptops and mobile phones containing all that personal information.

Senator Al Franken, announcing hearings on the subject on Capitol Hill, wrote:

     In fact, right now, once the maker of a mobile app, a company like Apple or Google, or

     even your wireless company gets your location information, in many cases, under

     current federal law, these companies are free to disclose your location information and

     other sensitive information to almost anyone they please—without telling you. And then

     the companies they share your information with can share and sell it to yet others—

     again, without letting you know.

It can be hard to tell the difference between Luddite-style concern about social media depersonalizing us, changing us into button-clicking automatons, and genuine worries about corporate control of our private information. As writers like Douglas Rushkoff and Deanna Zandt have noted, the ’net is biased toward sharing—our stories, our creations, our lives.

Corporations, on the other hand, are interested only in making money. If users distrust a service or a device, that may harm profits, and so Apple and others have attempted to fix breaches of trust when they do occur—even while joining efforts to keep government regulation of their activities to a minimum.

Conley notes that the ACLU doesn’t want users to have to choose between taking advantage of social networking and mobile phone technology and keeping their information private. Instead, they and others are pushing for more transparency from the companies that collect, transmit, and sometimes sell user information.

But it looks like the Internet and social media behemoths are, at least for now, committed to fighting legislative efforts to regulate them. It remains to be seen whether they will respond to consumer pressure and provide more transparency.

Copyright 2011 Sarah Jaffe


By arrangement with Alternet.Org.

Sarah Jaffe is a contributor to AlterNet and a freelance writer.

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