September 5, 2012

Privacy and Data Management on Mobile Devices

More than half of mobile app users have uninstalled or avoided cell phone apps because of privacy concerns

Nearly one third of cell owners have experienced a lost or stolen phone, and 12% have had another person access the contents of their phone in a way that made them feel their privacy was invaded

Washington (September 5, 2012) – More than half of mobile application users have uninstalled or avoided certain apps due to concerns about the way personal information is shared or collected by the app, according to a nationally representative telephone survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.

In all, 88% of U.S. adults now own cell phones, and 43% say they download cell phone applications or “apps” to their phones. Among app users, the survey found:

  • 54% of app users have decided to not install a cell phone app when they discovered how much personal information they would need to share in order to use it
  • 30% of app users have uninstalled an app that was already on their cell phone because they learned it was collecting personal information that they didn’t wish to share

Taken together, 57% of all app users have either uninstalled an app over concerns about having to share their personal information, or declined to install an app in the first place for similar reasons.

“As mobile applications become an increasingly important gateway to online services and communications, users’ cell phones have become rich repositories that chronicle their lives,” said Mary Madden, Research Associate for the Project and a co-author of the report. “The way a mobile application handles personal data is a feature that many cell phone owners now take into consideration when choosing the apps they will use.”

Outside of some modest demographic differences, app users of all stripes are equally engaged in these aspects of personal information management. Owners of both Android and iPhone devices are also equally likely to delete (or avoid entirely) cell phone apps due to concerns over their personal information.

In addition to these measures of app-specific behaviors, the Pew Internet Project also asked about three general activities related to personal data management on cell phones. Among all those who own a cell phone of any kind, we found that:

  • 41% of cell owners back up the photos, contacts and other files on their phone so that they have a copy in case their phone is ever broken or lost
  • 32% of cell owners have cleared the browsing history or search history on their phone
  • 19% of cell owners have turned off the location tracking feature on their cell phone because they were concerned that other individuals or companies could access that information

Even as cell owners take steps to maintain control over their personal data in the context of mobile phones, the physical devices themselves can occasionally fall into the wrong hands. Some 31% of cell owners have lost their cell phone or had it stolen, while 12% of cell owners say that another person has accessed their phone’s contents in a way that made them feel that their privacy had been invaded. Despite the fact that backing up one’s phone is typically conducted as a safeguard in the event that the phone is lost or stolen, cell owners who have actually experienced a lost or stolen phone are no more likely than average to backup the contents of their phone.

The youngest cell phone users (those ages 18-24) are especially likely to find themselves in each of these situations. Some 45% of cell owners in this age group say that their phone has been lost or stolen, and 24% say that someone else has accessed their phone in a way that compromised their privacy.

Smartphone owners are especially vigilant when it comes to mobile data management. Six in ten smartphone owners say that they back up the contents of their phone; half have cleared their phone’s search or browsing history; and one third say that they have turned off their phone’s location tracking feature.

Yet despite these steps, smartphone owners are also twice as likely as other cell owners to have experienced someone accessing their phone in a way that made them feel like their privacy had been invaded. Owners of smartphones and more basic phones are equally likely to say their phone has been lost or stolen.

“The rise of the smartphone has dramatically altered the relationship between cell owners and their phones when it comes to monitoring and safeguarding their personal information,” said Aaron Smith, a Research Associate with the Project and report co-author. “The wealth of intimate details stored on smartphones makes them akin to the personal diaries of the past—the information they contain is hard to replace if lost, and potentially embarrassing in the wrong hands.”

This Pew Internet report is based on a survey conducted from March 15-April 3, 2012 among 2,254 adults ages 18 and over, including surveys in English and Spanish and on both landline and cell phones. The overall sample has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points. Some 1,954 cell users were interviewed in this sample and many of the results published here involve that subset of users. The margin of error for data involving cell users is plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.

Media contacts

Mary Madden: mmadden@pewinternet.org and 202-419-4515

Aaron Smith: asmith@pewinternet.org and 202-419-4516