Check the privacy of mobile apps: NSW privacy commissioner

Doctor Elizabeth Coombs says people need to be aware of how their personal information will be used when they download mobile apps
NSW privacy commissioner Doctor Elizabeth Coombs.

NSW privacy commissioner Doctor Elizabeth Coombs.

Australians are been urged to check the privacy policy of smartphone apps before they download and discover their personal information is being “skimmed off” by third parties, urged New South Wales privacy commissioner Doctor Elizabeth Coombs.

Speaking to Techworld Australia, Coombs said she is urging people to adopt Privacy by Design and “take control” from the onset with mobile apps.

Privacy by Design is about embedding privacy into IT, business practices and networked infrastructures right from the outset.

“There is a report by App Authority that found that 31 per cent of free apps access user’s content lists or address books. The report is very interesting because it makes the point that app developers generate additional revenue by collecting your data with advertising networks and research companies,” she said.

“People aren't aware that in return for something like a free app, there is personal information being skimmed off. If in doubt with apps, be very cautious about downloading it.”

In addition, she said it was important to delete the apps you are not using. "While you may not be using them, they may be harvesting personal information that you are updating on your phone.”

NSW's theme for Privacy Awareness Week is Mobilise your privacy, stay safe online.

Figures provided by Google in a report called <i>Our Mobile Planet: Australia, 2013</i> (PDF) found that more than two thirds of Australians now have a mobile device to conduct various aspects of their life whether it is online shopping or social networking.

“That has implications for those who are developing mobile apps and the consumers who download them,” said Coombs.

Australian Federal Police's (AFP) national manager of high tech crime operations, assistant commissioner, Tim Morris, echoed this call for better mobile app development at CeBIT Australia this week.

He told delegates that the “incredible competition” to be first to market with mobile apps means that a lot of the apps “don’t have the level of security built into them” that people would have liked.

“This is a real challenge for industry where they have the commercial pressure to be first to market and grab that piece of it,” Morris said.

“We’re also seeing malware being developed for mobile devices and this is going to be a huge growth area. One of those vulnerabilities associated with that is many devices are connected via data networks or Wi-Fi and are constantly sending data to the cloud. This is not just an issue for personal devices but corporate devices that allow people a personal configuration," he said.

Identity theft

Coombs said that inadvertent placement of personal information on the Internet sometimes occurs because there are no security or privacy protections.

“This could lead to identity theft occurring and people might be able to access your financial information. You could be liable for debts that you have not incurred,” she said.

To combat identity theft, she said people should set strong passwords with a combination of words and numbers when setting up online accounts.

“Don’t use the same password for every account you have and don’t share your list of passwords with people.”

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