Privacy / Data Protection

Mobile Phones and Privacy

Author(s): Jennifer Urban and Chris Jay Hoofnagle
Year: 2012

Abstract: Mobile phones are a rich source of personal information about individuals. Both private and public sector actors seek to collect this information. Facebook, among other companies, recently ignited a controversy by collecting contact lists from users’ mobile phones via its mobile app. A recent Congressional investigation found that law enforcement agencies sought access to wireless phone records over one million times in 2011. As these developments receive greater attention in the media, a public policy debate has started concerning the collection and use of information by private and public actors.

To inform this debate and to better understand Americans’ attitudes towards privacy in data generated by or stored on mobile phones, we commissioned a nationwide, telephonic (both wireline and wireless) survey of 1,200 households focusing upon mobile privacy issues.

We found that Americans overwhelmingly consider information stored on their mobile phones to be private — at least as private as information stored on their home computers. They also overwhelmingly reject several types of data collection and use drawn from current business practices. Specifically, large majorities reject the collection of contact lists stored on the phone for the purposes of tailoring social network “friend” suggestions and providing coupons, the collection of location data for tailoring ads, and the use of wireless contact information for telemarketing, even where there is a business relationship between the consumer and merchant.

Respondents evinced strong support for substantial limitations on the retention of wireless phone usage data. Respondents also thought that some prior court oversight is appropriate when police seek to search a wireless phone when arresting an individual.

Keywords: privacy, mobile phones, cell phones, law enforcement access, cell phone searches, search incident to arrest, mobile apps, address book sharing, contact list sharing, telemarketing, data retention