Feds warn our cell phone-centered lives may open us up to long-term privacy issue

Posted at 11:00 PM, Jan 12, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-13 09:10:49-05

Nearly half of American homes are landline-free. Sure, it’s great to be untethered, but federal officials are warning that cell-centered lives may be opening up a whole new long-term privacy issue.

It centers around the fact that we are required to give out a number on most forms these days. Think about it. Every time you shop online or fill out a form, you are required to give a phone number.

For many, even people who still have landlines, their cell is their number of choice. That’s the case with well-known finance expert Erica Sandberg.  “The reason I do use it as my primary number is because it's the one I always have with me.”

Phone numbers on forms aren’t new. But the Federal Trade Commission says today’s mobile landscape is different.

Whereas landlines change if you move and are associated with everyone in a household, cell numbers may stay with a single person for life. “And what that means is that the number will be linked to the individual and can be sort of an identifier to tell people how to link other information to that individual,” says the FTC’s Robert Schoshinski.

Think of it this way. Every time you sign up for something or shop online, you fill out information. Often, there are terms and conditions that may allow that information to be shared or sometimes even sold to third parties.

“Once you’ve linked a cell phone number to an individual’s name or profile, you can link all sorts of other information that a data broker may have. For instance, online browsing habits, online shopping habits, in-person shopping habits at stores, such as grocery stores,” says Schoshinski.

He adds that information can be used for marketing or even sold again to others interested in the compiled information.

One possible solution: apps such as Sideline, Line2 and BusinessCall that allow you to add a second number right onto your cell, to help you separate your personal number from various types of business.

Sandberg likes that idea. “I love the idea of having a secondary phone number on your cell phone that is only used for other people's business, so that you can conduct this type of commerce separately from your private affairs. I think that’s fantastic.”