How Private is Your Phone Number?

How serious are you about the privacy of your phone number? If you’ve watched shows like “The Fall” and “House of Cards” or enjoyed movies dealing with espionage and spying, you’ll already be familiar with something called a “burner phone”. These are cellphones that you use once to deliver or receive a message before you destroy it to avoid being traced. The term, of course, comes from the old method of receiving secret information by way of pen and paper and burning that paper once you memorize the message. But with the rate of growth in cellphone technology, employing burner phones to protect your privacy might be a bit out of your price range. Enter the Burner App.

logo
The Burner App is new app whose website is running the “Burner Challenge“. By entering your phone number, it will let you know how much information can be obtained from public sources. The app itself functions by generating disposable phone numbers for talking and SMS texting, which is a great way to keep your primary phone number safe from possibly unwanted attention. This Forbes article by Larry Magid lists examples like Craigslist transactions and online dating. By dialing through the app, the recipient’s caller ID will display the generated number instead of your own; you can even have out-of-town area codes to further throw the recipient off your trail. So how much does the Burner App cost? It’s free to download, and you get 15 minutes of talk and 15 texts before the Freemium model kicks on. Additionally minutes and texts can run between $2 and $12.

While I can get behind the lovely nature of this app, I still have some concerns. Just because you have a limitless list of potential numbers with which to use, it doesn’t mean that your activities can be considered private. Does Burner keep a list of app-generated numbers associated with your primary number? Does it ask for locational data? What about the people you’re calling? Do their numbers get recorded somehow? These questions might not matter for the average citizen if their primary concern is obfuscating their personal phone number from intended recipients, but how will this exchange of information be handled according to the law if people are caught using it for illegal activities? I’ll be keeping my eye on Burner. I’m very interested to see what other technologies develop out of their work.

Social Logins: Facebook’s New Privacy Features

facebook logins

My aversion to social logins shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who follows my blog or has spoken to me at length about social media, but I’m always happy when any social site takes a step in the right direction when it comes to preserving the privacy of its users. Last year Facebook introduced a new Login system that would give people the option to opt out of providing private information when using their mobile app, a courtesy that was to be implemented on apps that can connect directly with your Facebook account. It looks like they’re testing those options now, which means many Facebook users will notice error messages when using the mobile app. As they work the bugs out, I hope the end result will leave the social media landscape a safer and a more private one. These changes are expected to start going into effect on April 30th 2015.

So what’s different now? In the past, the app would give you a list of information it requires for you to use it. That’s it. No options to opt out, no settings with which to fool around with; your information was essential to the app’s function. Now apps will (or should) ask you what information you’d like to provide and ask whether you would like to share information that the onwers of the app would like to have. I, for one, want to know exactly what my options will be for my favorite apps. I will give an update the next time I touch upon this subject.

Are Your Apps Compromising Your Privacy?

The world has gone mobile, and that means millions of apps are being installed every day on smart phones, tablets, and other devices that rely on Internet access. What most people don’t know is that when they download an app, they are subject to user agreements that allow the owners of the apps to collect personal and private data that will be shared with advertisers. You might think that apps like Facebook, WhatsApp, and other social media platforms would be the worst offenders, but according to Forbes staff Parmy Olson, the worst offenders are actually games like Fruit Ninja and Angry Birds. Locational data is one of the things these apps collect. The game developer doesn’t care where you play, but the advertisers who pay the game developers to include their ads in the app most definitely do.

App Grades

PrivacyGrade.org Database Scores on User Expectations VS Actual App Behavior.

You might’ve noticed that apps nowadays will inform you about what type of data they collect before you finish installing it. As an advocate for transparency in all facets of life, simply stating that your data is being collected is not enough; the developers of these apps and games should let you know exactly where your data ends up, who’s buying it, and for what purpose. On the other hand, it’s a little understandable that free apps require advertisers in order to stay in business. But it’s also important not to confuse this data collection with up-front advertising on certain free apps that allow you to pay a small fee to remove ad banners. This fee only pays for your right not to be advertised at directly, It does NOT mean they stop collecting your data! It only means that you’ll be advertised to later through a different medium.

So how far does this go? How much data is being collected? A driving apple called Google Waze collections your locational data, but it also shares this data with local governments! Doesn’t that strike you as “Big Brother” behavior? It’s not a matter of whether you have something to hide, but rather a reasonable expectation of privacy within your own property – including your car and where you’re going every day! It can go further than that. Last month Twitter unveiled Fabric, a platform for building mobile apps. Included in the tools is something called Digits, which is used to send SMS Registrations to people signing up for mobile app services. Normally this would an expensive undertaking for the owner of the app, but with Digits, Twitter would be paying for the text delivery. However, Twitter also gets to keep the phone numbers for advertising purposes. This behavior isn’t explicitly explained to anyone downloading or registering for the app!

So the question remains: Are your apps compromising your privacy? YES, absolutely they are! The more important question is this: do you care enough to make changes to your mobile behavior?