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Getting Smart About Smartphones

Tips for Parents and Consumers

Consumer Information Sheet 15 • April 2013

Our phones have become pocket computers. Think of the information your smartphone holds: call logs, text messages, your location, your contacts, photos, videos, and your web browsing history. Think of what it can do: stream movies, hail a cab, make purchases, and talk to you, among other things.

If, like many Americans, you say your life is in your phone, then it’s time to get smart about how you use it. Your safety depends on it.

Smartphone Risks: Reality Check

Smartphones (and tablets and other portable devices that can access the Internet) bring privacy risks, like their desktop counterparts. They can be targets for malware and spyware and vulnerable to hackers. Even so, many consumers do not protect their phones with security software – or even with a passcode.

Smartphones hold very personal information that we want to keep private, such as text messages, photos, and our friends’ contact information. If you use your phone for online banking, your account password may be stored on the phone. And some of the apps that make our phones so useful have been found to capture a wide range of our personal information.

Smartphone Privacy: Own it

Your privacy may be at risk even if you keep your phone with you at all times. Avoid complacency and take steps to protect yourself today. See the basic tips below and then go to pages 3-4 for additional resources.

First, Secure Yourself

In public places, be alert when using your phone: smartphones are valuable. Criminals snatch phones from distracted texters and talkers, frequently hurting the victims. Stolen smartphones not only have value on the resale market, they are also valuable to identity thieves who use stored personal information to commit crimes.

In the driver’s seat, turn off your phone. If you need to make a call or send a text, pull over to do it. Powering down your smartphone when you are behind the wheel can save lives – including your own.

Secure Your Phone

  • Know where your phone is at all times. Don’t let people you don’t know have access to it – malware, spyware, or tracking apps can be installed in just a few minutes.
  • Protect your phone with a password or pin. Install security software. Make sure to keep the software updated.
  • Keep your phone’s operating system up to date. This will protect your phone with patches for newly discovered bugs or hacks.
  • Use an app or a service that lets you remotely erase the information on the phone if it’s lost or stolen. You must set this up in advance, before the phone goes missing.
  • Back up your smartphone’s contents to your computer or to mobile cloud storage. Device manufacturers and others offer mobile cloud storage.
  • You can also better protect your private information by using your smartphone "settings."
  • Auto-lock: Phones are small and easy to lose. Set yours to auto-lock within five minutes, with a password to unlock it.
  • Location Services: Your phone can track your location for many useful purposes – giving you driving directions and traffic updates, finding the closest restaurant, or getting weather reports. You can allow access to your location when you want, but you don’t have to make it available all the time.
  • On an Android phone, go to Settings, then Location and uncheck the boxes. You will then be able to choose whether to turn location services on when an app asks for access.
  • On an iPhone or other iOS device, find Location Services under Privacy in Settings. You can turn it off. You can also choose which functions and apps can have access to your location.
  • On a Windows phone, you can disable all access to location information by apps and collection of your location information by the Windows Phone location service. Go to Settings, then Location, and toggle the location switch to off.
  • On a BlackBerry 10, select the Settings icon on the main screen, then Location Services from list, and use Location Services toggle button to turn off location services.
  • On a BlackBerry 7 and earlier devices, on the home screen, select Options, then Device, then Location Settings. Use the toggle switch to turn off location services and GPS assistance.
  • Check Your Network

    • Be careful about banking where you buy your latte. Free public Wi-Fi is normally not secure, and information thieves know it. They sit in cafes, shopping malls, and other public places monitoring how you use the Internet. Your passwords, account numbers, and photos can fall prey to hacking. When using Wi-Fi hot spots, stick to window shopping.
    • Check Out Apps

      Over one million mobile apps are available today. They let us do many wonderful and useful things. They can also access our personal information and even our phone’s functions. Pause for a moment and check out the features of the latest cool app before you download it.

      • In the app platform/store, look for a link to the app’s privacy policy. Look through the policy for what it says about personal information they collect and how they use and share it. If you don’t like what you see, don’t download the app.
      • On Android phones, the Permissions tab on app pages in the GooglePlay store displays the information and features on your phone that the app can access. For example, it may show that an app can make phone calls and incur charges. If you don’t like the permissions, don’t download the app.
      • Once you’ve downloaded an app, pay attention to any notices asking for your permission to access your location or other information.
      • Look for a privacy policy and privacy settings within the app after you’ve downloaded it. You may be able to make choices about what information an app collects or how it uses it.
      • California law requires apps to have a privacy policy.1 If you can’t find an app’s privacy policy on the platform/store or within the app, or if you have a complaint about the app’s privacy practices, report it.
      • For apps in the Microsoft Windows store: Look for a link labeled “Report app to Microsoft” or "Report concern to Microsoft."
      • For apps in the Apple AppStore: Go to www.apple.com/privacy/contact/.
      • For apps in GooglePlay: Visit the app’s description page to "Flag as inappropriate"or go to https://support.google.com/ googleplay/android-developer/contact/takedown.
      • For apps in BlackBerry World: Send an email to privacyoffice@rim.com.
      • Report to the California Attorney General: www.oag.ca.gov/contact/consumer-complaint-against-business-or-company
      • Tips for Parents

        Like it or not, today’s young people have nonstop Internet access on smartphones, either theirs or their friends. Parents may find this overwhelming, but researchers, educators, and even kids suggest that parental anxiety can put a real damper on communication. And two way communication is essential to online safety for our children.

        That said, young people need guidance in making smart choices. It isn’t always easy to find out about an app’s privacy practices, but here are some things that parents can do.

      • Instead of having "the talk" about smart phone safety, have an ongoing conversation. When you learn something new about settings or apps, share it with your kids. And invite them to share their discoveries with you.
      • On your own, review the apps your kids use or want to use. Look for a privacy policy to learn what information the app would collect and use. Federal law requires websites and online services like mobile apps to get parental consent before they collect personal information from children under the age of 13.2
      • If you think an app has collected information from your kids or marketed to them in a way that violates the law, report it to the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov/complaint.
      • In the app store/platform, read reviews. Learn what other users say about the app to see if there are any known issues or concerns.
      • Common Sense Media rates apps for age appropriateness. They also provide information on privacy and security.
      • If you use an Android phone, consider using an app blocker to stop children from using apps without your permission.
      • If you have an Apple device such as an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, use the Restritions settings. Go to Settings, then General and click on Restrictions. This lets parents prevent kids from installing or deleting apps, making in-app purchases, and accessing the Internet and certain other features.
      • For More Information

        Smartphone Security Checker, Federal Communications Commission, www.fcc.gov/smartphone-security

        "Before It’s Gone: Steps to Deter Smartphone Thefts & Protect Personal Info," CTIA (the wireless association), available at www.ctia.org/consumer_info/index.cfm/AID/12084.

        "The Best Mobile Security Apps," PC Magazine (May 2012), available at www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2402099,00.asp

        "How to clear your data off a device," Computerworld (August 2012), available at www.computerworld.com/s/article/9229969/How_to_clear_your_data_off_a_device

        "How to Remotely Disable Your Lost or Stolen Phone," PC Magazine (April 2012), available at www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2352755,00.asp.

        Parents

        App Blockers: NetNanny, available at www.netnanny.com/mobile, AppLock and Smart AppLock, both available in the GooglePlay store.

        App Reviews, Common Sense Media, available at www.commonsensemedia.org/app-reviews

        "Kids’ Privacy: Know Your COPPA Rights," Federal Trade Commission, available at www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0031-kids-privacy

        "Net Cetera: Chatting with Kids About Being Online,"Federal Trade Commission, available at www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/pdf-0001.pdf


        Notes

        1  The California Online Privacy Protection Act, Business and Professions Code §§ 22575-22579, is available at http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displayexpandedbranch.xhtml.

        2  The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act requires apps to post a privacy policy in a place where it is plain to see. It also gives parents the right to review information collected from their children under 13. For more on the law, see www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0031-kids-privacy.

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