Phoning It In: What Do We Think About Mobile Privacy?

by , May 13, 2011, 5:30 PM
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Congress put a spotlight on mobile privacy this week in Washington. As I argued earlier about the coming tumult over data handling on cell phones, mobile gives regulators, and the marketplace generally, something we didn't have in the privacy discussion on the Web -- two big fat likable corporate brands to help focus and personify the conversation. 

And as expected, Apple and Google became the faces of the issue at the Senate hearings this week. But what do we know about how consumers themselves regard security and privacy on their own phones? In a research study that didn't get the attention it deserved when it was released in late April, TRUSTe and Harris Interactive asked this very question, specifically regarding smart phones and app usage. As much as users like their apps, they bring to them fears about data control. According to the survey, 38% are primarily concerned about privacy, 26% security and 19% identity. More than half of users have actually endeavored to read a privacy policy in an app. Good luck with that, by the way. In my experience the incidence of privacy policies appearing in apps is pretty low.

Not surprisingly, but importantly, the creepiness starts to set in when data sharing starts getting automatic. When asked about the use of third party IDs such as Twitter or Facebook to sign into other apps, 52% were either uncomfortable or very uncomfortable with the practice. Age, of couse, was a critical determinant here, with only 32% of 18- to 24-year-olds voicing discomfort.  

Geolocation raises the bar for many people. When apps ask to use location information, for instance, only 35% always or sometime allow it. And yet iPhone users appear most willing to allow an app to use location information (54% vs. 38% for Android). It is worth noting that 44% of users still rarely or never let an app use location.  

What is most interesting to content providers and perhaps marketers is that concern about privacy on mobile may translate into reticence about engaging with some of the key features of mobile like geo-location and personalization. For instance, in discussing the privacy precautions they do take, 40% say they simply don't use apps or go to mobile sites that ask or use personal information. As TRUSTe President Fran Maier told me when we discussed these findings last month, the dearth of up front discussion by publishers about data handling on mobile is a missed opportunity. "There is a lot of opportunity to get more engagement that is not being taken advantage of. Only 37% feel they are in control of their own personal information," she says.  

And the willingness to participate in guarding one's privacy on mobile actually accelerates with increased experience. This may prove to be a very important point in understanding how critical data control will be in the mobile context. For instance, while 42% of users overall say they protect their privacy by reading and understanding disclosures in the apps, 55% of those with five or more years of smartphone do so.

This evolving diligence suggests a few things. First, it indicates that as people use mobile devices longer, they become more acquainted with (and perhaps utilize) the ways in which the device endemically tracks them. Second, it suggests that there is an increased willingness of mobile users over time to participate in their own data management.

Again, here is an opportunity for marketers or publishers to get closer to their customer by engaging the issue of data. We can only speculate here, but I read into this data the notion that as mobile users themselves become more acquainted with what their phone is doing and how it does it (geo-location in particular) they get more, not less, interested in the problem.

"People understand that mobile phones are much more tied to them than their computer," says Maier. "It is personally yours. They probably sense there is something more unique than an IP address. And the ability to do location tracking has brought up overall awareness that it can do other kinds of tracking." 

And there is upside to cultivating this relationship with users. The survey shows that 37% are willing to share some personal information in exchange for free or lower-priced apps. In fact, when asked which types of information a user might be willing to share with a first or third party, gender (78%), email address (75%) and full name (65%) ranked quite high. Indeed, they were more willing to share their location information than they were their date of birth. On the other hand, behavioral tracking on the cell phone may prove a hard sell with consumers. Only 18% said they were willing to share mobile Web surfing behavior.

The app ecosystem, like all things mobile, offers publishers and marketers an opportunity to change the usual marketing conversation. We talk ad nauseum about establishing "relationships" with customers, but mobile is a platform where that word has to really mean something. Mobile heightens almost all of the concerns over privacy and intrusiveness that already existed on the Web. How interesting it would be if the medium also heightened users' willingness to make fair exchanges of value with sources they had reason to trust? Mobile is not just the Web extended. By marrying data technologies to the phone, we are creating a different animal altogether that demands different modes of address. We call mobile a "platform," but consumers don't. They call it a "phone."

2 comments on "Phoning It In: What Do We Think About Mobile Privacy?".

  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited
    commented on: May 13, 2011 at 7:40 p.m.

    If you don't want the government to follow you, why would you want businesses to follow you to convert you their way of thinking and buying their products/services? Ten years down the pike it won't be as easy to sluff off businesses in your business. Our desperation of being controlled will be in your face. Of course age is a factor. The older folk have read more and have had history more prevelant in their education.

  2. Sadie Marshall from O&S Media
    commented on: February 8, 2014 at 1:50 p.m.
    I for one do not allow the use of location information when using apps. I guess it is just one more step towards the "big brother" scenario, a truly scary prospect!

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