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State steps up enforcement of digital privacy protections

A handful of mobile app makers that defied an order from state Attorney General Kamala Harris to post a written privacy policy can expect enforcement actions to be filed against them as early as next week.

Several companies might face sanctions after Harris sent warning letters in late October to 100 app makers that had not posted a written policy. The vast majority agreed to comply, said Travis LeBlanc, who oversees the attorney general’s new Privacy Enforcement and Protection Unit.

The companies that rejected her order maintain they aren’t required to have a policy because the personal data they collect is not subject to the California Online Privacy Protection Act, LeBlanc said. He declined to name the companies or say how many were violating the law.

The prevalence of mobile app downloads has exploded in recent years, while enforcement of privacy protections has struggled to keep up. Privacy advocates say having a policy in place is the minimum requirement for app makers and a necessary first step in educating consumers who increasingly rely on mobile devices to share and store sensitive information.


App makers have 30 days after receiving a warning letter to post a privacy statement or face a $2,500 fine every time an app is downloaded without a privacy policy – which for popular apps could result in a huge penalty.

“We’ve reached out to industry associations and let everyone know that they have an obligation to do this,” LeBlanc said.


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Churches find revenue leasing steeples to cell companies

Inside the bell tower of the Church of St. Leo the Great, constructed in 1926 on a corner of Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, isn't the obvious spot for a cell antenna, but that's where AT&T installed one.

Across the state, wireless companies are installing an increasing number of cell sites inside church steeples and bell towers. With the growing use of tablets, smartphones and other wireless devices, the wireless industry has approached churches because of their height and residential locations, where putting new towers would be difficult.

The practice has created additional work for property tax assessors, who are responsible for determining how much of the church's property is no longer tax-exempt. Churches and other nonprofits often are exempt from property taxes, but only if the property is used for religious or charitable purposes. If property is used for commercial purposes, such as leasing space for a cell tower, tax assessors must charge the organizations.

For most churches, the extra revenue for hosting the cell towers generally exceeds the hit they might take from increased property taxes. Leases can range from $2,000 to $4,000 per month, depending on the church’s location. Officials at the Church of St. Leo the Great did not respond to requests for comment about their lease.

At Canyon Creek Presbyterian Church in San Ramon, a contract with T-Mobile brings in between $25,000 and $30,000 a year for the church, said Pastor Martin Scales. The church approached cell companies when it was constructing a new building six years ago because it knew the companies were having trouble putting antennas in the area.


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Women use emoticons more often, but men have more variety ;-)

Women might use emoticons more than men, but men have a broader emoticon vocabulary.

That’s what researchers from Rice University are saying in a new study that evaluated the use of emoticons in text messages.

“This was a unique study in that we were able to collect data from subjects as they used their phones,” said Philip Kortum, a psychology professor at Rice, who said it was the first such study to watch subjects “in the wild.”

“Most studies had relied on results of self-reported behavior,” he said, which is “generally not a very good at reconstructing behavior."

Kortum said the results of this latest study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, are just one small part of a major investigation into the way college kids, and therefore people in general, use their smartphones.

Kortum and his colleagues enlisted 21 Rice students, 11 women and 10 men, and provided them with iPhones for one year. Each phone was equipped with a custom logger, or tracker, that did not interfere with the phone’s use but recorded how, when and where the student used the phone.

In the case of the text messages, all the words were scrambled for privacy; only the emoticons were recorded. At the end of six months, the researchers sorted through the 158,098 text messages the students had sent. 

Surprisingly, Kortum said, only 4.2 percent of all messages contained emoticons. However, the researchers recorded 74 different kinds of emoticons in these messages.


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