A new study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project finds that smartphones are at greater risk for privacy breaches than traditional flip or feature mobile phones. That seems like an obvious conclusion that needed a study about as much as we need research on whether or not water is wet or ice is cold.
Why are smartphones a greater privacy risk than old-fashioned mobile phones? Well, the same reason your PC is a higher risk for a privacy breach than your refrigerator or scientific calculator—it actually contains valuable, relevant information an attacker might be interested in.
Sure, feature phones contain contact lists, and most can get email, or do some rudimentary Web surfing and social networking. However, that is nothing close to the gigabytes of information that can be stored on most smartphones, or the sensitive data shared apps that might be surreptitiously “leaked” to app developers or other parties.
According to the Pew study, only eight percent of non-smartphone owners reported having their phone accessed in a way that made them feel like their privacy was being invaded, compared with 15 percent of smartphone owners. The fact that smartphones pose a greater privacy risk is hardly alarming. The most shocking part about those numbers is that the percentage of smartphone owners is so low.
Traditional phones are just that—phones. They can perform some other basic functions, but do very little aside from making and receiving phone calls. A smartphone, on the other hand, is a computer. That iPhone, or Android smartphone, or Windows Phone device in your pocket has as much processing power, memory, and storage as many desktop computers had just a decade ago.
Smartphones have apps. They execute code. They can track and pinpoint your location. They contain a history of websites you’ve visited. They store massive quantities of sensitive data about you, your friends and loved ones, your bank accounts and credit cards, and more. All of that valuable data in a tiny device that can be so easily lost or stolen represents a significant security and privacy risk.
Thankfully, the Pew report is filled with promising news in that regard. Nearly six in ten smartphone owners regularly backup the contents of their device, half report clearing the browsing history, and a third say they have disabled location-tracking features. The important takeaway from the Pew study is that smartphone users seem to be much more aware of the risks and threats than they were in years past, and they appear to be more knowledgeable and proactive about protecting their smartphones and the data they contain.
For businesses that rely on smartphones, or allow employees to access company data or network resources using their own BYOD smartphones, this should be obvious. Hopefully, it didn’t take a Pew research study to alert you to the fact that smartphones hold more sensitive information than old-fashioned feature phones, and pose a greater security and privacy risk.
You should have policies in place that govern what data is allowed to be stored on mobile devices, and you should have tools in place that enable you to protect the data from unauthorized access, and erase the data on those devices in the event that a smartphone or tablet gets lost or stolen.