Smartphone, Cell Phone Users Getting More Serious About Privacy: Pew

Intrusive applications are being removed or avoided by a growing number of mobile users on their smartphones and cell phones, according to a new Pew Research Center report.

An increasing number of mobile device users are becoming more aware of their online privacy and are taking the initiative to remove or avoid apps from their smartphones and cell phones that demand large amounts of personal information to be used.

The trend shows that 54 percent of cell phone users who download apps have chosen not to install an app "when they discovered how much personal information they would need to share in order to use it," according to a Sept. 5 "Privacy and Data Management on Mobile Devices" study conducted by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.

"Thirty percent of app users have uninstalled an app that was already on their cell phone because they learned it was collecting personal information that they didn't wish to share," according to the report, which was compiled based on results from a nationwide landline and mobile telephone survey of 2,254 adults between March 15 to April 3. The sample has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.

Cell phones users are also taking other steps to better protect their data and privacy, the study reported. Forty-one percent of cell owners back up the data on their phones, from photos to contacts and other files, in case their phone is ever broken or lost, while 32 percent of cell owners have cleared their browsing or search histories on their phones. About 19 percent of the users turned off the location tracking features on their phones to prevent anyone from tracking them.

"Smartphone owners are especially vigilant when it comes to mobile data management," the study reported. "Six in 10 smartphone owners say they back up the contents of their phone; half have cleared their phone's search or browsing history; and one third say they have turned off their phone's location tracking feature."

At the same time, "smartphone owners are also twice as likely as other cell owners to have experienced someone accessing their phone in a way that made them feel like their privacy had been invaded," the report continued.

Some 88 percent of adults in the United States own cell phones, and 43 percent say they download cell phone apps to their phones, according to Pew.

Jim Dempsey, vice president for public policy at the Center for Democracy & Technology, said the findings from the Pew study on mobile privacy awareness show progress in terms of users becoming more aware of the risks that can affect them and their personal information.

"It's an important finding because it suggests that the message is getting through that consumers need to be paying more attention, particularly in the apps environment and across the board, as they use mobile devices," said Dempsey. "We and other consumer privacy advocates have been arguing for a long time that we need better laws to regulate user privacy, but also that we need better informed consumers and consumers who are paying more attention."

Dempsey said it is encouraging, particularly since "Congress is making no progress at all on the legislative front" to better protect consumers. "We've been arguing for a long time that the platform developers need to offer users better controls and that the apps developers need to be more explicit about how their apps are working."

A series of news stories on mobile devices and user privacy compiled by The Wall Street Journal earlier this year were very beneficial in making more people and companies aware of how user privacy issues affect them, said Dempsey. "They basically went into some of the apps and in essence took them apart to see how they were taking data from the phones and sending it back to the developers for marketing and other purposes."

The new Pew study is "a very positive development," said Dempsey. "We at least are going to push to get this awareness even higher. Fifty-four percent is good, but it should really be in the 80s or higher. We have constantly said that there is no single solution to the privacy problem. Instead, the solution is a combination of better laws better technology design and more engaged and better-aware consumers."

A Pew study this past March found that about consumers also have privacy concerns when using search engines. About 83 percent of search engine users select Google, but 73 percent said they don't want search engines to track their online behavior, according to that study. The report found that there appears to be a growing concern over privacy and the amount of personal information Google and other search engines are collecting about users.