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Technology Many U.S. mobile users turn off tracking over privacy concerns

A woman talks on her cellphone while driving in Burbank, Calif.

FRED PROUSER/REUTERS

There are new fears that America's smartphone revolution is making collateral damage of consumer privacy.

Nearly 20 per cent of adult mobile users in the U.S. say they have deliberately switched off the location tracking feature on their phones over worries that other people or companies could obtain their geographic information, according to a new report.

Entitled "Privacy and Data Management on Mobile Devices," the study was released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. It found that smartphone users – those thought to be the most easily seduced by the allure of sleek devices – are in fact the most skittish about safeguarding their privacy – with one-third reporting they had disabled the tracking feature and half intentionally erasing their phone's browsing history.

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If those fears gain momentum, such a trend could pose a serious challenge to companies, such as retailers, that are increasingly interested in sending customized location-based content, like coupons or other marketing materials, directly to consumers' smartphones.

"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, co-author of the report, in a statement.

"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."

Underscoring that point, the report found that relatively-young adults, those aged 25 to 34, are the most likely to be worried about privacy breaches through location tracking on their phones. While 32 per cent of mobile users in that age group have turned off that feature, only 4 per cent of those ages 65 and older indicated that they had done the same.

And although more American adults are downloading mobile apps than in 2011, 57 per cent of those users have either uninstalled or decided not to install an app due to privacy concerns, the report said.

The study's findings are based on a survey of 2,254 adult Americans conducted from March 15 to April 3, 2012, on both land lines and cellphones. That total includes some 1,954 cell users, making the margin of error for mobile-related findings plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.

Canadians, on the other hand, appear to take a less suspicious view of location-based content than their American cousins. A study conducted for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association in March found that 22 per cent of surveyed smartphone users were open to providing app developers with personal details, such as their location or demographic information, in exchange for a free app.

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The CWTA study also found that 32 per cent of surveyed mobile users were keen to have a service that would send coupons or other information directly to their cellphones based on their real-time location, that survey said. The level of interest in such location-based content was highest among wireless-only households, smartphone users, younger consumers and residents of Alberta and the Atlantic provinces.

Data for the CWTA's study were collected from March 9 to 28, 2012, including responses from 2,011 Canadian mobile phone users. The survey's margin of error is plus or minus 2.2 per cent.

Although the two studies are not directly comparable, their findings could hint at potential attitudinal differences among U.S. and Canadian smartphone users. For instance, nearly half of surveyed Canadians expressed an interest in communicating with health-care professional through their cellphones for safety reasons and using location tracking during emergencies, said the CWTA's report.

Canadians are among the world's heaviest users of smartphones – with those costly devices already representing nearly half the mobile market. The wireless industry estimates that the vast majority of Canadians will use smartphones by 2014, given that most consumers upgrade their devices every 18 to 20 months.

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