Consumers have grown so concerned about privacy on their mobile phones that most avoid downloading some apps, and many others have removed apps out of concerns about data sharing, according to a survey released Wednesday. The Pew Internet & American Life survey also found that Americans lose their cellphones at alarming rates.
Slightly more than half (54 percent) of cell phone consumers who use mobile apps have decided not to install an app after realizing how much personal information they'd have to share; and nearly one-third (30 percent) of that group has uninstalled an app for privacy reasons, Pew found. Half of smartphone users had taken steps to clear their devices of personal data by either clearing their browser cache or search history. One-third of smartphone users had turned off location information on their phones, it said.
"There are lots of ways people are attempting to manage what information they are sharing about themselves,” said Aaron Smith, a Pew research associate who co-authored a report on the survey. "This data is illustrative of the sheer quantity of very sensitive, very personal information people have on their phones, and that people are obviously very cognizant of that."
Hesitation to use apps -- or the urge to remove them -- was fairly consistent among all types of users, Pew found. Both iPhone and Android users dumped apps at the same rate; older users were only slightly more likely to avoid or delete apps.
The data hints that cellphone software developers are losing out on a lot of business by ignoring consumers' worries.
"In the context of the apps world, you don't have a lot of options,” said Smith. “... It's a very binary choice for the consumer. Either you use the app or you don't. Often, the easiest solution is just not to use the app."
Young consumers aren't only worried about apps compromising their security. Twenty-five percent of smartphone users aged 18 to 24 said an unauthorized user had accessed personal information on their phone, compared with 18 percent for 25-34 year olds and 2 percent for the 65-and-older crowd.
Meanwhile, one-third of all cellphone users told Pew their phone had been lost or stolen at some point. That statistic probably won't surprise urban dwellers, who are reminded by public service announcements on mass transit that smartphone theft is a rising problem. But Pew found roughly consistent loss and theft rates among city, suburban and rural dwellers.
As one might expect, younger users were slightly more likely to lose phones: 45 percent of all 18-24 year old cellphone users said they'd misplaced one. But older users were hardly immune: 30 percent of those aged 35-54 said they'd lost a phone, and 20 percent of those 65 and older had, too.
"I was surprised with the relative age balance when it came to lost or stolen phones," Smith said.
Cellphone theft is a major problem. California-based Lookout Mobile Security recently estimated that lost phones will cost U.S. consumers $30 billion this year. Some relief was promised earlier this year, when the Federal Communications Commission announced that major U.S. carriers would begin to systematically disable lost phones, theoretically drying up the black market for stolen phones. At the time, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said that cellphone thefts accounted for 30-40 percent of all robberies nationwide.
Pew did not ask users who said they'd lost phones if they were returned, but an experiment run for NBC News earlier this year suggests that return rates are dismally low. That project also found that even otherwise honest people who find lost cellphones can't seem to stop themselves from rummaging around through their victims' data.
Despite all this data on lost and stolen phones, smartphone users aren't regularly backing up their information. Only 41 percent told Pew they'd ever done so -- and only 11 percent said they backed up photos, contacts, etc. on a regular basis. Of note: Those who told Pew they had lost a phone in the past were no more likely to back up their data, suggesting consumers are still learning how to deal with carrying so much personal, vulnerable information in their pockets.
“The rise of the smartphone has dramatically altered the relationship between cell owners and their phones when it comes to monitoring and safeguarding their personal information,” Smith said. “The wealth of intimate details stored on smartphones makes them akin to the personal diaries of the past. The information they contain is hard to replace if lost, and potentially embarrassing in the wrong hands.”
The survey, which was conducted in March and April, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.
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