Does your non-profit cell phone policy and apps violate clients’ privacy?

Apps. There’s a ton of them. Need to track your most recent run? There’s an app for that. Want to keep track of your expenses? There’s an app for that. Need to go to the bathroom in the middle of the a movie and don’t want to miss out on any of the action? There’s an app for that.

We all know there are plenty of smart phone apps out there, but do we really understand what they do once they are downloaded onto your phone?

This past week, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Yelp and fourteen other social media sites were listed in a lawsuit for distributing “privacy-invading” applications. According to a PC World article, these applications are accused of collecting user address book data and storing it on their servers without the user knowing.

This issue is at the top of many minds in the technology field as just last month, the popular social network Path issued a public apology after it was discovered the company used address book data to notify users when their friends had joined the network.

So what does this mean for your non-profit agency? Well, not much if your agency doesn’t allow staff members to use data based applications on their phones. I am guessing though, that nowadays that is a rarity.

When I read stories like this, I often think of non-profit organizations that deal with HIPAA on a daily basis. Many of the employees may have access to company smart phones that allow employees to check in on email while away from the office. Or what if the agency doesn’t supply cell phones and staff members use their personal cell phones to update the organization’s Facebook page?

Phones are so smart these days that . . .

  • information from the email the staff person replied to,
  • the new Facebook friend that was just confirmed, and
  • the phone call that was just made

might be added to the phone’s address book and sent to third-party servers without the user even being aware.

In the case of the HIPAA abiding non-profit (and even those who wish to protect board member and donor information), there could be a violation without anyone’s knowledge.

Even if your agency doesn’t need to protect the identity of their clients, do you really want address book information being shared without your knowledge? These days, with security breaches more rampant, you can’t take privacy seriously enough.

So what can we do?

Decide if your organization really needs to use cell phones. Yes, it is nice for staff members, but is it necessary? Can you get by without them? A radical idea, but it just might be the right one.

If you decide that cell phones are needed, consider providing them only for “necessary staff” instead of allowing staff to use their personal phones. I know this costs money, however; it ensures more control over the use of the phone on behalf of the agency.

Also, consider what type of phone is needed. Does the user really need all of the bells and whistles of an iPhone or can she be as productive with an older generation Android device?

In addition, regardless if phones are being provided by the agency or not; a clear and strict technology policy must be in place and understood by all employees.

If staff members are provided smart phones, what applications can they use? If it is decided that apps can be downloaded to agency phones, then make sure the person overseeing the policy reads up on the privacy policies of the allowed apps. Most of them can be found online in either the iTunes App Store or Google Play Store. Keep in mind that these policies can change.

Audit your agency’s technology. If your organization currently allows staff members to use their personal phones, there is not much you can do other than make them aware of the issue of apps and how they can compromise your clients’ privacy. However, on phones provided by your agency, see if any of these applications are already downloaded and check out their settings to see if any sharing options can be turned off. When in doubt, hard reset the phone and start all over.

I will be the first to admit that managing the technology of business is not easy. And these privacy concerns do not make it any easier. However, until applications stop sharing information, taking the time to address these issues now could mean avoiding a sticky legal situations later.

I’d love to hear how your organization manages cell phone usage for staff members. Do privacy issues concern you? Let’s continue this discussion in the comment section below!


About DonorDreams

Erik got his start working in the non-profit field immediately upon graduation with his masters degree in 1994. His non-profit management and fundraising experience numbers nearly 20 years. His teachable point of view around resource development is influenced by the work of Penelope Burk and those professionals subscribing to a "donor centered" paradigm. Donors have dreams and it is our responsibility to be dream-makers because donors are not ATMs.

Posted on March 19, 2012, in Mondays with Marissa, nonprofit, technology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Marissa . . . you are soooo right on target with this post. And it is more than just HIPPA concerns that non-profits need to be concerned about.

    When I left my last job, I look my address book with me and uploaded it into my Google account for “safe keeping”. I then switched cell phones and went with an Android powered phone because I liked the idea of linking it into my Google account.

    Needless to say, I started noticing a few weeks ago that all of my former contacts (e.g staff from other agencies, board members, donors, etc) started randomly getting more information magically populated into those empty fields. I realized that it was because some of the apps on my phone were obviously pulling that info from Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.

    While I LOVE THIS as a fundraising professional, it did raise a little concern that through the magic of “apps” I was effortlessly getting so much more information on people. I began worrying what information of mine was magically being shared.

    This is a HUGE issue and it has liability written all over it for non-profit agencies. Thanks for bringing it to light, Marissa. Great job!!!!


    • Thanks, Erik! I think it is an interesting side effect of the Silicon Valley Boom. These applications – most of them are free – are all meant to help us, but what’s in it for the company who made it? Apparently, data has become currency. I know that I scan privacy policies more carefully these days. Before I just clicked “ok” without a second thought.

  2. Another scheme of privacy invasion. We should be more vigilant of the imporatant data we have on our smartphones. Avoid sharing address book by logging mobile phones to twitter.

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