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Why Can't Mobile App Privacy Be Simple?
By: Jessica Cherok
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We all know someone — ourselves, friends, children, or heaven forbid our mom — playing Words with Friends, Instagram, Ruzzle, etc. to a near obsession. But what kind of personal information are these apps, and others, collecting about us once we’ve downloaded?

Turns out, quite a lot.

How mobile apps protect personal privacy has been getting a lot of attention recently. In July, the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) held the first in a series of multistakeholder meetings aimed at increasing transparency and developing a code of conduct for mobile applications. The meetings included app developers, privacy advocates, educators, industry experts, and anyone interested enough to participate.

The NTIA meetings were in response The White House’s Privacy Blueprint — in particular the Consumer Bill of Rights — which hopes to empower consumers as to what personal identifiable information mobile apps are accessing and where it is ending up. Even though a final code of conduct from the NTIA is still a long way off, many hoped the beginning of the conversation, coupled with increasing public awareness, would encourage the companies running mobile apps to do a better job of informing users what information was being collected, shared, or sold.

Some apps certainly stepped up to the plate, creating more comprehensive privacy policies and ensuring user consent. Others continued rampantly collecting information. After all, why expend resources to develop and follow privacy guidelines without any legislative or industry reasons to do so?

While that may not sit so well with mobile app users, it is a reality of business. A lot of industries, not just mobile app, are traditionally reactive rather than proactive. It takes either regulatory oversight or significant public pressure sometimes to enact changes. And since, as noted above, the NTIA code of conduct is still a long way off, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has yet to impose regulatory framework, it may just take significant public outcry to prompt changes in how mobile apps handle our information.

So how do you go about stirring up public outrage over the amount of information apps are collecting and sharing without proper consent? Simple: involve children.

The FTC released a report saying almost 60% of the available mobile apps geared for children shared the device ID with some sort of third party.  Some apps went so far as to collect and transmit phone numbers and geolocation information. Many contained in-app purchase capabilities, as well as advertisements, all without first receiving parental consent.

The FTC does has enforcement capabilities for deceptive acts of commerce, and authority from the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) which protects children under the age of 13 by requiring parental consent for online activities. As part of the report, the FTC announced it would begin investigations against mobile apps for violations under COPPA and warned developers to come up with better privacy policies.

Not surprisingly, the report received a lot of attention. Hopefully the developers of mobile apps will revise their policies, not just for children, but for the protection of all users’ information.

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About the Author
Jessica Cherok is an advocate for online privacy, campaigning for ethical data practices and the protection of personal privacy.
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