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Digital ethics: The double life of your mobile phone

Your smartphone has a dirty secret; it’s leading a double life.  While your mobile phone is sat in your back pocket, many of the apps you have installed and trust are giving out your personal information to hundreds of servers worldwide.

An alarming recent project and stage show, ‘The Secret Life of My Mobile Phone,’ by technology journalist Geoff White and security analyst and renowned ethical hacker Glenn Wilkinson, has found that your phone sends out thousands of data packets everyday round the world, without even telling you.

Many of the apps you have installed on your phone, are often running in the background whilst not even being used. In a 24 hour period Geoff White’s Channel 4 series ‘data baby’, which helped form the foundations of White’s stage show, found your phone could be sending up to 144,0000 packets of information to over 300 different servers worldwide. Using a fake online identity, White and Wilkinson found that many of these data packets, although only tiny, can contain your exact location, your browsing habits, what you’ve purchased and lots of other highly sensitive information. With nearly 7.2 billion mobile phones on the planet, multiplying five times faster than the human population is growing, that’s an awful lot of data being pinged around.

Much of the information emitted in these data packets, including your IMEI number, is often sold onto advertising companies.  Not only is this a direct breach of your privacy, it also puts you at risk of identity fraud and other malicious data security issues. Much of the data collected through these means has the potential according to Ben Zevenbergen of the Oxford University Internet Institute to be used in ‘blackmail, stalking, identity theft, unsolicited commercial communications’.

Our phones are also programmed to constantly search for the Wi-Fi networks we have previously joined. It would be incredibly easy to intercept and plot a map of the Wi-Fi networks an individual has connected to. Joining an open wifi network on your phone leaves a digital trace, and your unencrypted private data in plain sight for hackers to intercept.

We live in a digital age, in which being connected to the Internet is an essential part of our daily lives. The double life of our mobile phone raises serious digital ethics issues. Are we consenting to our information being shared around the world, when we download many of these apps? A whole industry has emerged from the sale of mobile app data. Many of the apps we download for free come at a price, often sacrificing up great swathes of your personal information and location data. Research by the Oxford University internet institute concluded that although users usually consent to gathering of their data, through a simple ‘I agree’ button, it is often difficult to disseminate how this data is being used, often without a relevant legal basis.

This all begs the question of how we can be more savvy about the data being shared from our mobile phones.

The issue lies with how convenient it is to become more digitally conscious of what we are sharing, what we're connecting to, and what apps we download. Fundamentally the only way to limit the data shared via our mobile phone apps is to simply stop using them and uninstall them. However this is hardly a practical solution. Turning off your Wi-Fi when it is not in use, is a good start to limiting the data of yours which is shared.

Secondly, consciously question an app when it requests to use location services on your smartphone. Why does it need this information and do you want to give it out?

Thirdly, be wary of which wifi networks you're connecting to and where you're connecting to them. You could possibly install a VPN on your phone, which would help protect you from some of the location data being sent out of your phone.

Finally, do not name your phone with your own name. Giving your phone a name helps link the data your phone sends out to your own personal identity, which can be used to profile you by advertisers or scammers.

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