Smarter cell phone privacy protections

by Editor, San Francisco Chronicle

The CPUC vote has been rescheduled to January 16, 2014.

It’s outrageous that the privacy protections that apply to your landline records do not extend to your cell phone activity. Considering the capabilities of a modern smartphone to track the most intimate details of your life – from your calls and texts to your very movements – a wireless device should have greater consumer privacy safeguards.

The California Public Utilities Commission is expected to decide as soon as Thursday whether to move toward closing the gaps in privacy rules that were adopted long before cell phones became common.

One option, proposed by Commissioner Mark Ferron, is to essentially do nothing. His 11-page proposal lays out a litany of excuses for inaction: existing laws and corporate policies are sufficient to protect “potentially sensitive customer information,” a lack of evidence of serious privacy breaches, the limited jurisdiction of the commission to regulate smartphone applications.

Then there is the real-world alternative by Commissioner Catherine Sandoval, which acknowledged that there “may be gaps” in privacy protections that were adopted in an era of landlines. She rightly asserted that its examination of telephone companies’ privacy practices is “reasonable and consistent” with the commission’s duties. She further noted that several wireless companies have installed software on mobile devices that collects and transmits phone-usage information to third parties without a customer’s knowledge and consent.

Sandoval’s proposal to initiate rule making to update phone privacy guidelines has drawn the support of consumer groups – even though it does not go quite as far as some have advocated. Her alternative would apply only to applications installed by wireless service providers, not third-party apps added by consumers.

“It would be a huge step forward,” Richard Holober, director of the Consumer Federation of California, said of the Sandoval plan.

The rule-making process itself would serve a public service by calling attention to the way we are being tracked every time we turn on a cell phone. Many of those “free” apps we download aren’t so free after all.