Talking Out Loud About Mobile Privacy

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Study reveals not all people realize smartphones are computers.
Study reveals not all people realize smartphones are computers.

Here's the bad news for marketers, according to the mobile edition of TRUSTe's 2013 Consumer Data Privacy Study: 22% of smartphone users said their number one concern when using apps was having their privacy breached. Now here's the good news: Twice as many (42%) said their chief worry was that the apps would sap their batteries.

What emerges from this survey, conducted by Harris Interactive of more than 700 smartphone users, is a portrait of a relatively new, but widely adapted, human pursuit in the throes of growing pains. More than a third of smartphone users have owned the devices for less than two years. And some 38% of them are more concerned about their privacy being violated on desktop PCs than on mobile devices, even though the latter can keep even closer tabs on them via geo-location. Thirty-one percent of those surveyed were not aware they were being tracked on their cell phones.

“For the time being and into the near future, extra attention should be given to mobile by marketers,” says TRUSTe VP of marketing Dave Deasy. “We still have a lot of people new to smartphones who haven't yet figured out that it's a computer, so now's the time to get a foundation in place for how you're going to use customer data and how you're going to communicate that to them.”

 More than three-quarters (78%) of smartphone users told Harris they wouldn't download an app they didn't trust, but that's down from 85% in last year's survey. Forty percent of those surveyed said they research an app online or check to see if it has a privacy policy before downloading it, yet their claims appear to fly in the face of consumers' cavalier usage of apps, reported by several sources. A study from Pinch Media, for instance, notes that only about 20% of users return to an app one day after downloading it and that only 5% still use it 30 days later.

But marketers should interpret that survey response as a measure of what consumers think they should be doing, even if they're not actually doing it, according to Deasy. “Maybe it's not 40%, but marketers should take note that it's not 5% either,” he says.

Smartphone users have little problem with sharing basic information about themselves, such as their names, genders, ages, and even email addresses. But fewer than 12% said they were willing to give marketers access to their web surfing activity, precise locations, home addresses, or contact lists.

While the FTC increasingly holds marketers accountable for consumer privacy, consumers are more apt to hold themselves accountable. When asked who was most responsible for protecting their privacy, 76% of smartphone users allowed that they themselves were. Wireless providers came in second, named by only 6% as the chief offenders. After them came device manufacturers, governments, and finally app developers at only 2%.

“This is the people saying they want to control their own destinies, to make their own privacy choices,” Deasy says. “The problem is that they don't have the education or the tools to do it.”

This is a big area of opportunity for marketers, he says. “The most important thing to monetizing websites and apps is getting access to things like surfing behavior and locations, so marketers have to expend effort to build trust with consumer so they'll share this information,” Deasy says. “The ones who don't are going to fail, so privacy is a key way to differentiate your business.”

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