Is Your Personal Phone Data Safe?

Illustration of social media notification on a smartphone
Illustration of social media notification on a smartphone | Image by Oscar Wong/Getty Images

Americans spend much of their time on their phones, texting, calling, browsing social media, looking up things of interest, and much more.

According to the Pew Research Center, 97% of Americans own a cellphone, and they spend an average of four hours and 30 minutes a day on their mobile devices and check their phones 144 times, per Consumer Affairs.

However, when using these cellular devices, most consumers do not consider where their collected and stored data goes or who has access to it. Are the activities of American consumers on their personal devices actually private?

Information Collected

With technological advancements, artificial intelligence, and high social media usage, user data from cell phones is more at risk than ever.

“Depending on the network, the data at risk can include location information, health information, religious identity, sexual orientation, facial recognition imagery, private messages, personal photos, and more,” according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). “Personal data held by social media platforms is also vulnerable to being accessed and misused by third parties, including law enforcement agencies.”

In 2023, there were 353,027,892 reported victims of compromised data, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center. T-Mobile experienced the highest number of breaches, with 37,000,000 victims impacted.

A large portion of apps collect more data than one may realize. According to a 2021 study by experts at pCloud, the Swiss cloud storage service, 52% of apps share user data with third parties. Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn shared the highest percentage of data with third parties, at 79%, 57%, and 50%, respectively.

The study revealed that 80% of apps collect personal information for their company’s own marketing purposes, with Facebook and Instagram both using about 86% of the data collected for such purposes.

“Apps can collect and share anything, from your personal information and user content to search and browsing history, to analyze you as a ‘profile’ for themselves and other apps,” according to the study.

This information can be used for more than just marketing purposes, however. According to a letter by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) sent to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland in November 2023, a surveillance program known as Data Analytical Services (DAS) has allowed federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to track phone calls of AT&T customers in the United States for years.

The program provides access to information on phone calls like the time, date, and length of the call, and, in some cases, location information. DAS searches can provide not only the phone records of the target of the search but also the phone records of each person who communicated with the target, according to EPIC.

The program, formerly known as Hemisphere, is funded by the federal government and has been in use since at least 2007, according to The New York Times.

“This information has been designated ‘Law Enforcement Sensitive,’ which is meant to restrict its public release,” Wyden wrote in the letter. “I have serious concerns about the legality of this surveillance program, and the materials provided by the DOJ contain troubling information that would justifiably outrage many Americans and other members of Congress.”

What is Being Done to Protect User Privacy?

In March, the U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of a bill banning TikTok. Those in favor expressed concerns about private data being collected, as previously covered by The Dallas Express. The bill is currently awaiting consideration in the Senate.

“We must ensure the Chinese government cannot weaponize TikTok against American users and our government through data collection and propaganda,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA) said.

The Texas Data Privacy and Security Act (TDPSA), a comprehensive consumer data privacy law, was passed in June 2023. The act regulates the collection, use, processing, and treatment of consumers’ personal data by certain businesses and imposes a civil penalty for non-compliance.

The act gives Texas residents the right to:

  • Confirm whether a controller is processing personal data and accessing the personal data.
  • Correct inaccuracies in their data.
  • Delete personal data provided by or obtained about the consumer.
  • Obtain a copy of their data, if available, in a portable and readily usable format.
  • Opt out of processing personal data for targeted advertising, the sale of personal data, or its use for profiling.

The law will go into effect July 1. Several other states, including Florida, Oregon, and Montana, have signed into law similar measures that will go into effect this year, according to White & Case.

In February of 2023, Gov. Greg Abbott required all state agencies to ban TikTok from all state-owned and state-issued devices and networks, according to a press release.

The City of Dallas launched a new app to help combat cybersecurity threats in January of 2023, as covered by The Dallas Express.

“Dallas Secure” is a mobile app powered by Zimperium that aims to protect personal information stored.

“Public safety comes first in Dallas — and cybersecurity is a form of public safety,” Mayor Eric Johnson said in a press release. “It is critical for our residents and for businesses to remain vigilant about their online safety in a 21st-century economy. We must work collaboratively to ensure that Dallas is on the cutting edge when it comes to stopping cybersecurity threats.”

Good privacy practices 

The National Security Agency shared several tips on how to better protect personal device information:

  • Disable Bluetooth when not in use.
  • Do not connect to public Wi-Fi networks.
  • Consider using a protective case that drowns the microphone to block room audio.
  • Cover the camera when not in use.
  • Use strong lock-screen, pins/passwords.
  • Maintain a minimal amount of apps.
  • Update the device’s software as soon as new updates become available.
  • Disable location services when not needed.
  • Do not have sensitive conversations on the device.
  • Power the device on and off weekly.

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