To say that cell phones are widely used in the U.S. is a gross understatement.

According to CTIA – The Wireless Association, an organization representing the interests of the wireless communications industry, cell phones were used by 96% of the U.S. and territorial population (including Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands) in December 2010.

A recent Nielsen survey reported that almost one third of U.S. cell phone users are utilizing smartphones. While the growing adoption of smartphones is good news for phone manufacturers, the advanced computing capabilities and wireless connectivity of smartphones raise new concerns regarding privacy rights.

Smartphones provide users continuous mobile access to the Internet. As a result, smartphones contain a treasure trove of personal information, including banking information, travel plans and family photos. However, while use of advanced security software is commonplace on our computers, many of us are not safeguarding the personal information stored on and transmitted through our smartphones. While there is security software for smartphones including anti-virus and encryption software, it is not available for all models of cell phones and has not been widely adopted.

A recent study conducted by mobile security company AdaptiveMobile discloses that 2010 saw the highest number of Smartphone malware (short for malicious software) infections, up 33% from 2009. AdaptiveMobile expects to see an exponential increase in such attacks in the next year as the adoption of smartphones becomes more widespread. In a society well aware of computer viruses and identity theft, why are we not protecting our smartphones from such attacks?

It is not only hackers and cyber criminals who may be interested in the information stored on our cell phones. It was recently revealed to the public that Apple iPhones and Google Android smartphones are regularly tracking our locations and recording this information in a hidden file stored on our phones. Anyone able to access our phones can use the stored locational information to reconstruct our daily travels and routine. Access to such information could be of great interest to the police and the government or even an employer or suspicious spouse. Police use of such information may be of particular concern in light of the recent accusations that police officers in Michigan are using data extracting devices to secretly obtain information from cell phones during routine traffic stops.

In addition to being stored on our smartphones, this locational information is being transmitted back to Google and Apple. It is currently unclear what these companies are using this information for, although the companies have stated that this information is transmitted anonymously and that the tracking and ability to opt out by disabling location services is disclosed in the privacy policies agreed to by the users. Such policies, however, are often lengthy and confusing and it is common for users to agree to such privacy policies without actually reading them. Furthermore, a recent test conducted by The Wall Street Journal revealed that locational data continued to be collected and stored on Apple’s iPhone even when the location services were turned off.

The news of smartphone tracking activity and data collection has raised a number of privacy concerns. These concerns have lead U.S. and foreign lawmakers to request further details from Apple and Google regarding these practices. In addition, representatives from both Apple and Google have been summoned to participate in a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law. The hearing is to be held in May and will be focused on mobile device privacy.

While many are concerned over the implications of such locational tracking on privacy rights, others note that tracking a person’s location through their cell phone is nothing new. Some smartphone users state that they are not concerned because they have nothing to hide and note that such tracking is required for many of the useful programs on their smartphones to function. Numerous smartphone apps, such as those that can recommend a nearby restaurant, locate the nearest Starbucks or allow a user to map out travel routes, require tracking the location of the smartphone user.

Amongst the continued confusion over what information is being tracked by our cell phones and the debate over whether this tracking is helpful or harmful, what remains clear is that many of us are largely uninformed when it comes to the information that is being stored on our cell phones.

In addition to failing to protect personal information stored on cellphones from access by others, many smartphone users are also unwittingly broadcasting their personal information to the world. Geotagging is the addition of geographical information to media such as photographs or video. If geotagging is enabled on your smartphone, uploading media to the Internet simultaneously uploads your location. By uploading geotagged images you may be sharing your home address, details of your daily routine or the fact that your house is empty while you are out of town. It is easy to see how this information can be used and misused for everything from targeted marketing to targeted crime.

Most troubling is that many users have no idea that geotagging is occurring on their phone. Many smartphones come with geotagging automatically enabled. As geotags are generally invisible unless specific software is downloaded to enable visualization of the tags, many users are completely unaware that they are sharing more than pictures and videos when they upload media files to the Internet.

Even with the emerging security and privacy concerns, our cell phone usage continues to grow. Cell phones have become an integral part of everyday life and for many of us, not having a cell phone would render us incompetent employees and social pariahs. As cell phone technology continues to evolve, our reliance on these devices continues to grow.

Will our growing cell phone dependence make us even more vulnerable to potential privacy violations or will it drive us to demand more transparency, protection and control when it comes to our cell phones?

The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and the San Diego Center for Ethics in Science and Technology will be hosting a free public forum on May 4 at 5:30 p.m. to further discuss cell phones and issues arising from our society’s increasing dependency on this technology.

Margaret Ng Thow Hing is an intellectual property attorney residing in Pacific Beach and writes as a member of the San Diego Center for Ethics in Science and Technology.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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