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Smartphone location tracking: everything you need to know

Ae you being tracked, and do you need to worry?

Yes, your smartphone is spying on you. The real question is, should you care?

Your location for sale

Who has time to read end-user licence agreements? You might want to peek at the EULA the next time you go on a mobile-app downloading binge. Most people acknowledge that they do grant an app maker access to some personal smartphone data. What most phone owners would be surprised to learn, though, is exactly what that data is and who has access to it.

The Wall Street Journal discovered that most of the 101 apps it tested for an article shared a phone's unique ID number with third parties. It found that popular apps such as those for Dictionary.com and Fox News collect location data. Publisher Rovio Mobile, the maker of Angry Birds, collects your latitude and longitude, your contacts, and your phone's ID (not your phone number). Other apps, including Pandora, collect your age, gender, location, and phone ID, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Some apps, such as Foursquare, TextPlus 4, and WhatsApp Messenger, collect your smartphone's phone number. Bejeweled 2 also collects your mobile phone number, and, according to the Journal, shares it with third parties.

An interesting side note: the Journal's project found that iOS apps were sharing much more information than the Android apps were.

Time to freak out?

With all of the headlines about location tracking and online privacy violations, it's easy to live in fear - namely, fear that app makers and big companies like Apple and Google know too much about you and are somehow going to reveal your deepest, darkest secrets to the world. But in reality your location is not being transmitted to a giant map in a secret room, where all of your movements can be followed via some sort of flashing beacon.

Even so, privacy safeguards are needed in the nascent location-based services market, to protect consumers. US network Verizon is looking to head off mobile-device tracking concerns by placing a peel-off sticker on devices it sells warning users that their location may be tracked by the device. The US Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing on mobile device tracking for May 10. Is that enough? No.

Most of the privacy hoopla, experts say, is overblown for now. More concerning to mobile-privacy experts are future services that might be vulnerable to rogue developers, or user-location databases that have the potential to be hacked. For the time being, exercise caution and good judgment when installing apps. In addition, you can avoid the majority of mobile-privacy pitfalls by using a combination of common sense and digital tools such as the highly rated Lookout Mobile Security app for Android, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone 7 devices.

(Liane Cassavoy contributed to this report.)

  1. Do you really need to worry?
  2. Android smartphones
  3. Your location for sale
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