Low Cost Phones Are Turning Privacy Into A Luxury Option

from the ill-communication dept

Even when you're shelling out thousands of dollars for the latest smartphone and an "unlimited" data plan for it to run on, that cost expenditure still puts you at great privacy risk. Wireless carriers, for years, have collected and sold your location and other data to a long line of dubious middlemen, and despite a lot of sound and fury on this subject, few (outside of maybe the EFF) are really doing much about it. And with the FCC recently having self-immolated at lobbyist request and any new meaningful privacy protections derailed by bickering, that's not changing anytime soon.

Less discussed is the privacy nightmare you'll find in "discounted" phones designed to help "bridge the digital divide." While numerous vendors and tech giants have cooked up lower-cost Android phones with marketing focused on helping the poor, a new study by advocacy group Privacy International found that the privacy trade offs of these devices are... potent. Not only do they usually come with outdated OS' opening the door to hackers, the phones have locked down user control to such a degree they're unable to remove apps that may also pose security risks:

"The MYA2 also has apps that can’t be updated or deleted, and those apps contain multiple security and privacy flaws. One of those pre-installed apps that can’t be removed, Facebook Lite, gets default permission to track everywhere you go, upload all your contacts, and read your phone’s calendar. The fact that Facebook Lite can’t be removed is especially worrying because the app suffered a major privacy snafu earlier this year when hundreds of millions of Facebook Lite users had their passwords exposed. Facebook did not respond to request for comment."

It's part of a broader issue in telecommunications where privacy has become a luxury available only to those who can afford it. Some telecom giants like AT&T have tried to push the barrier even further, only letting users opt out of online snoopvertising if they're willing to pay $500 more annually for telecom services. Between the apps, the phone, hackers, and your wireless carrier tracking, hacking, and monetizing your every waking moment, it's a privacy and security minefield out there for even affluent smartphone buyers.

Studies suggest low income users realize that in the modern telecom landscape there are stark privacy penalties for being poor, yet feel they have no real power in the equation:

"Yet millions of Americans who can’t afford to buy a computer or install broadband internet at home often have no choice but to use such devices, which become their sole means of accessing the internet. If they want to enjoy the same basic conveniences that people in higher socioeconomic tiers have—such as transportation directions, online bill pay, and email—they may have to give up their privacy in exchange."

The market won't stop the practice because it's profitable to hoover up every shred of data. The government won't stop this process because Congress is slathered with mountains of cross industry campaign contributions that eliminate any motivation to craft meaningful privacy guidelines with any real teeth. With 3.7 billion users expected to have their only online access come via smartphone by 2025, that might just be a problem, and making privacy a "luxury feature" will only make said problem worse.

Filed Under: luxury, mobile devices, phones, price, privacy


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Oct 2019 @ 2:22pm

    this isn't an issue of low-cost phones

    spyware apps are preinstalled on even the highest cost phones and can't be uninstalled. but most of them can be easily disabled. the bigger issue is the spyware that's baked into the OS itself or google services, which are a core part of the ecosystem. that's harder to disable

    and AT&T's packet sniffing extortion is its own issue


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