The Watchdog: With your phone, you carry a spy in your pocket

Have you heard about mobile device tracking? That’s where your phone unwittingly gives away your location, even your personal information, without your permission. You don’t even know it’s happening.

Some say it’s an invasion of privacy. Of course it is. Why should you care?

Mobile device tracking is powerful enough that it can get you killed. Think terrorists who are tracked by their cell phones. Soon enough, bombs come flying through the air. Darn those pesky phones.









But what about you? You’re not a terrorist. Why would companies or the government track you? Answer: Because it can. Laws that protect our privacy for this don’t yet exist.

Turns out that when you walk through a mall, for example, you leave a digital footprint. Some retail stores are tracking your location through your cell phone’s unique identifying numbers — even if you don’t enter the store.

Ostensibly, the retailer wants to know which paths you take through its store, how long you stand at various displays and your wait time at a cash register.

One company that sells store sensors is Euclid, a self-described retail analytics company in San Francisco.

“Our plug-and-play sensor installs in two minutes,” the company explains in its marketing materials. “Just connect power and Internet. Each sensor is the size of a deck of cards and covers up to 24,000 square feet.”

The company says it does not receive information about your name, address, email or phone numbers — only anonymous identifiers that go to the retailer for analysis.

Still, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., wrote Euclid and asked this question: If police ask Euclid what stores someone has walked past, would the company be able to provide the answer?

Euclid answered yes, if the police supplied the phone’s information and all necessary legal processes were followed.

Franken said last year, “It’s one thing to track someone’s shopping habits through a loyalty card or credit card purchase. Folks understand that their information may be collected. It’s another thing entirely to track consumers’ movements without their permission as they shop, especially when someone doesn’t buy anything or even enter a store.”

There’s a second type of dangerous mobile device tracking. McAfee announced this month that a new survey shows that mobile phone apps that invade a user’s privacy “are dominating the landscape.”

McAfee collected data from thousands of apps and found that 82 percent track a user and collect location information. Some of the apps contain malware that gains access to personal information.

Why are they doing it? To target ads.

Which apps cause the most trouble? Games.

How does the malware come in? Usually under “Tools” or “System Tools.”

The phrase that pops up on the phone is harmless enough: “Would you like to use your current location?” Choices are Don’t Allow or OK. Guess which one protects you?

At a privacy seminar this week at the Federal Trade Commission’s headquarters, tracking expert Ashkan Soltani reported that popular iPhone music app Pandora sends information to eight trackers, including unique location data to seven, a unique phone ID to three and demographic data to two.

What do trackers collect? Access to user names and passwords, contacts, age and gender, location, phone ID and phone number.

And you thought the music was free? (Pandora also sells ad-free subscriptions for $36 a year or $3.99 a month.)

Before downloading an app, consider doing Internet research on the app’s privacy policy. Be careful when giving permissions to the app to access other parts of your phone such as photos or contacts. Remember that your contacts include the personal information of your friends who probably don’t want their secrets shared with unknown companies.

Another new technology project that’s coming along quickly is iBeacon. It’s an Apple product that can be placed in public and picks up signals from all Apple and Android phones in its vicinity. iBeacon can send messages or videos to a phone, too. Hey, shopper, welcome. Here’s a video about our sale!

Customers could use the system to pay for items, too. So far, the system has been tested at baseball stadiums and malls. You’ll start to see more use of iBeacons.

As I mentioned, this new technology is largely unregulated. Sen. Franken and others seek a national privacy law: “People have a fundamental right to privacy,” he said last year. “And I think neglecting to ask consumers for their permission to track them violates that right.”

The industry’s proposal is to create a special sign with a recognizable icon so that when you walk into a store and see it, you know you’re being tracked.

Privacy experts want people to opt in to tracking rather than opt out. Creating a blacklist of Americans who don’t want to be tracked — a Do Not Call for tracking — is considered a logistics nightmare.

Another problem, for most people, is that it’s difficult to turn off tracking on a phone.

The only good news: Americans now switch out their cell phones with upgrades faster than ever. When you get a new phone, you start with a clean slate.

Nobody knows who you are. Until you turn it on.

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Self-regulation of online spying by the spies? Oh, please!

Have you heard of online behavioral advertising?

That’s Web sites tracking your online activities, including your searches, and delivering advertising to you based on your interests. For now, the practice is unregulated by the federal government, and companies are supposed to regulate themselves.

But the government and privacy experts are scrutinizing this growing practice in light of privacy concerns. They say they worry most about use of sensitive information regarding finance, children’s privacy, health and Social Security numbers.

A Federal Trade Commission report says a company engaged in the practice must provide “clear and prominent notice” to consumers that it tracks Web habits to match related advertising. The report says such alerts are often posted in lengthy and difficult-to-understand notices.

Companies need to create effective disclosure statements separate from privacy policies, the report says. It also says companies should let consumers opt out of behavioral advertising.