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Robert Longley

Feds Could Better Protect Cell Users' Privacy: GAO

By October 18, 2012

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Your smart cell phone's ability to know and share your location allows it to do some pretty useful things for you, from "Find pizza near me," to "I need an ambulance." But, federal regulators could do more to prevent your smartphone's location sharing skills from violating your privacy and placing you at risk of identity theft, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The Silver Lining: Cellular companies use and share the location data and history generated by their customers' phones, tablets and other devices to provide customers with location-based services, offer improved services, and increase their own revenue through the sale of targeted advertising. The customers benefit from easy and reliable access to applications such as real-time navigation aids, access to free or reduced-cost mobile applications, and faster response from emergency services.

And its Cloud: But in its report to the Senate subcommittee on privacy, technology and the law, the GAO warns, or perhaps reminds us, that this collection and sharing of our locations poses privacy risks. Specifically, the privacy advocates interviewed by the GAO said that consumers:

  • Do not typically know when or with whom their location data is shared, or how it is used by third parties;
  • Could be at risk of increased surveillance when their location data is shared with the police; and
  • Could be at risk of identity theft or threats to personal safety when their location data is shared with third parties that fail to adequately protect them.

Also See: US Families Abandoning the 'Home Phone'

Government's Role: Within the federal government, three agencies share primary responsibility for dealing with the privacy of cell phone users. These are:

  • The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) takes action against companies that unfairly or deceptively use consumer information;
  • The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) enforces rules regulating the mobile phone carriers, such as AT&T and Verizon; and
  • The Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) advises the president on telecommunications and information policy issues.

Are They Working? According to the GAO's report the federal agencies have "held educational outreach events, developed reports with recommendations aimed at protecting consumer privacy, and developed some guidance on certain aspects of mobile privacy." However, notes the GAO, their efforts and regulations are rarely aimed specifically at smartphone privacy and the potential misuse of mobile location data.

What the GAO Recommended: In its report, the GAO called on both the FTC and the NTIA to work with the mobile phone industry, privacy advocates and consumers to develop codes of conduct, industry guidance and regulations designed to ensure the security of smartphone users' location data.

Also See:
GAO Says FCC Should Reconsider Cell Phone Dangers
CDC On the Health of Cell Phone Nation
Using Cell Phones to Monitor Vehicle Location (2006)

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