Do mobile phone users have a reasonable expectation of privacy?


Mobile  phones rely on global positioning systems (GPS) and mobile phone towers to hone in on a user’s location.

The geolocation industry is booming, generating $34 million last year with phenomenal growth predicted in the next five years to reach $4 billion. Whilst geo-location enabled devices such as mobile phones can yield enormous benefits, in the wrong hands they can facilitate stalking, theft and function as the perfect surveillance machine.

Mobile phone users need to be aware of new technologies like location services, and in particular what  the implications are of real-time location tracking without prior opt-in consent.

Broadcasting your physical location may seem innocuous because you think you are only letting your friends know where you are.  However GPS enabled devices can potentially broadcast your location to a much larger audience.

Companies providing location based services such as mobile phone providers, mapping companies and friend finding services collect data from you, but what isn’t known is how well they protect that data.  There have been many privacy compromises by big companies in relation to internet data.  The potential for data misuse is infinitely greater with respect to GPS enabled mobile phones.  Mobile phones are the most widely held media device in the world with nearly 2.5 billion subscribers, dwarfing every other media platform, even TV. The mobile phone is a personal, interactive device that is almost always on and engaged throughout the day.

Companies provide some details in their terms of service regarding how long they retain this data, who they share it with and what kinds of restrictions they impose  on their affiliates and partners engaging in data sharing.   Despite these terms of service, users can never be sure whether their data is secure and what kinds of due diligence or ongoing monitoring occurs in relation to their service providers’  practices.  There are additional questions surrounding what legal protections apply to your data should a company go into liquidation.

It isn’t easy to ascertain what companies actually do with data. We can only trust what a company stipulates in it’s terms of service.  The reality is that your data could be being circulated to a much wider audience than you believe.  Companies  exist to advance their own interests  and have recovered from many public relations disasters with their reputations intact.

Law enforcement and Government  don’t have to jump over too many hurdles to obtain access to mobile phone information or data stored on servers, and have seeking access to this kind of data  with increasing frequency and ease.

The lack of surety of the accessibility to various forms of our data is partly due to ambiguities inherent in outdated legislation such as the US Electronic Communications Privacy Act 1986 which hasn’t kept pace with technological change.

Mobile phone providers will also continue to assure us that if they have transparent privacy policies this is effectively enabling users to exercising their privacy preferences to make  informed choices.   Transparency is something which shouldn’t be conflated with privacy.

Location based advertising, particularly local search is a lucrative industry growing at phenomenal pace.  Apple recently amended their terms of service to enable iPhone users to opt-out of iAds.  However given that Apple requires users to agree to location tracking before being able to download apps,  how useful is this?

The iPhone is just a phone without apps devoid of any added functionality. Unless users buy an iPhone as a fashion accessory, there is little likelihood they will opt not to have their location tracked.  Put simply, users will be forced to  surrender their privacy if they want an iPhone with functionality.

A US  House Judiciary Committee has been set up to consider law enforcement’s right to hone in on your iPhone or BlackBerry in an era when individuals and new technologies allow mobile phone users to be electronically shadowed.

Mobile phones,  which know our location and other intimate details of our lives, are  portable behavioral tracking and targeting tools that consumers carry with them everywhere.  Unlike online transactions,  mobile communications are still in a relatively early phase of  development, and there is still some scope for the adoption of privacy protective regulations to protect consumer interests in the mobile arena.

This portable tracking device is potentially recording your every move. Mobile Advertising platforms have the ability to track users to  within a few feet, close enough to identify a consumer’s proximity to a specific retail store.

The House Judiciary Committee will explore law enforcement’s right to monitor the location of mobile phones.  The Committee Hearings come just as location-based privacy of iPhone users has come under increasing public scrutiny.

As mobile phones acquire new methods of sensing users’ locations such as GPS faster than courts are able to define standards, the law needs to be updated to provide some level of protection.

Related posts:

  1. Customer may sue AT&T for breach of privacy
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