Mobile User Privacy, LBS And The Impact on App Developers

The recent finding that iPhones and Androids store location data of users has drawn a lot of attention from privacy watchdogs. Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, the researchers that found the file that stores location data on iPhones and iPads. What really drew attention was that the file is unencrypted, unprotected, and has no size limit and it’s on any computer synced with your iOS device. It can also be easily accessed on the device itself if it falls into the wrong hands.

Soon to follow were reports that Google too stores location data on Android devices. Apple took a week to respond and on 27th April came out with a more detailed explanation to the entire controversy. Microsoft too admitted that it was storing location data but did it more securely than the other two companies. The noise surrounding this recent controversy will die down eventually, but one thing is for sure, smartphone users’ locations are being tracked.

A recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of TRUSTe shows some interesting data about consumers concerns when it comes to their smartphones.

Primary Concerns When Using Mobile Apps
Primary Concerns When Using Mobile Apps

1,000 smartphone users were surveyed between February 3-11, 2011. Here’s a brief summary of our analysis of the report.

1) Privacy and Security

Not surprisingly, consumers feel that privacy is their number one concern with 38% of the participants sharing this view. Also as expected, privacy fears are larger among older users compared to younger ones. Consumers do not completely trust their mobile app store as much as one might think, this shows in the survey stat that only 25% of users believe that their mobile app store only offers apps that safeguard their privacy, users trust apps more when it comes to dealing with privacy and 38% are confident that the apps themselves do protect their privacy.

Security comes in second with close to 26% users marking it as their primary concern. Security has always been a major concern and this survey just reaffirms that. Only about one third users feel that they are in control of their devices.

2) Location and activity tracking

If there is one thing the recent noise around location tracking by smartphones tells us its that users do not like to be tracked! Resounding confirmation of that feeling comes from the results showing that a majority of consumers do not want to share their location with app owners/ developers. 77% users said they would rather not share their location with anybody, and a minor 2% agreed to share their location data with first parties and third parties. Consumers who get alerts when location sharing is turned on are more likely to allow location sharing, meaning that if it is absolutely necessary that a developer requires access to location based data, a simple pop-up confirming this will generate some sort of confidence in the user to allow sharing of location data.

Info People Will Not Share Thru' A Mobile App
Info People Will Not Share Thru' A Mobile App

Interestingly, one in every three users feels they have any choice over location tracking and 73% users want the ability to opt-out of mobile activity tracking. Only 35% users were willing to give apps access to location data.

3) Advertising tracking

Ads are big business in the app world and nobody can deny that. Advertising tracking is becoming a major concern among users and 85% users want to opt-out of targeted advertising and 74% feel that uncomfortable with the idea of data tracking for targeted advertising. Amazingly 68% users claim they are being tracked for targeted advertising.

Sentiments Around Advertisers/Tracking
Sentiments Around Advertisers/Tracking

Only a minority of consumers feel they have a choice about the collection and use of their location information by an application, though iPhone users (at 45%) and Android users (41%) feel they have a greater choice in this matter than do users of other devices such as Windows Phone (38%) BlackBerry (20%).

This survey goes a long way into reading the mind of an average app user and the concerns that they have. Here is what an average user wants :

1) Control over sharing- Users demand more control over their personal information and 98% of them want easy access to controls for allowing or disallowing access to personal data. Even in exchange for money, nine out of ten users were unwilling to share their contacts, photos and web surfing patterns.

2) Sign-on convenience vs security and privacy- About half of the users surveyed reported that they were not comfortable using social media accounts to sign into apps. This statistic varies widely with younger users being less concerned, and choosing convenience over privacy. Older users did not feel the same way.

3) Transparency of shared data- About 45% of users said that transparency in terms of what data is collected is extremely important to have better idea of who knows what. Users responded favourably to an app that would provide visibility and info on data collected by other apps.

The report can be downloaded from here.


Mobile User Privacy

What are your concerns when using your mobile phone everyday? Do you think mobile privacy is over hyped (in the days of Facebook!)? Would you compromise on privacy if apps deliver a personalized experience?

As an LBS app developer, do OS companies’ disclosure of storing location information hurts your prospect? What’s your take?

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