If only privacy was not such an issue…

July 6, 2012 10:21 am

The use of mobile applications has been on the rise ever since mobile apps became popular in 2008. The term ‘app’ was named ‘Word of the Year’ by the American Dialect Society in 2010 and at the end of 2011, more than half a million third-party apps were available globally. Nowadays, tens of millions of people around the world use mobile applications on a daily basis.

For large, consumer-facing companies it is almost impossible not to offer your customers a decent mobile application these days. The increasing use of mobile apps has made many products and services more appealing, attractive and accessible, and has become part of many self-respecting companies’ branding and marketing strategy.

However, downloading a mobile app is not a one way street. Although the user is offered information, a product or a service, security issues and privacy concerns are increasingly being addressed by regulators around the world. In the United States, mobile apps have caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission and the US Congress has expressed its concerns about mobile apps sharing data and copying information. The White House, as well as the US Department of Commerce, have also announced that they will take action to regulate the mobile app ecosystem.

A few companies that have gone too far in gathering information from their customers have highlighted the need to strike a balance between information sharing and invasions of privacy. Last February, San Francisco-based Path – ‘the smart journal that helps you share life with the ones you love’ – shared a bit more than users thought they were signing up to, it quietly uploaded users’ iPhone address books without permission. A week later, it turned out that the users of the feature ‘Find Friends’, on the social media website Twitter, handed over every phone number and email address in their phone, something they were not aware of and Twitter had not clarified.

Shortly after Twitter came clean, Foursquare, Foodspotting, Facebook, Instagram and a number of other companies announced they planned to clarify their privacy policies. Industry experts believe these companies are just some of the numerous businesses that store user information in order to, ultimately, use that data for advertising purposes. The app developer Dustin Curtis wrote on his blog that it was ‘essentially standard practice for app developers to send users’ entire address books to their servers for storage without their permission’.

But not only address books are copied, sensitive location data is often also collected. Many US politicians wonder ‘How could this happen?’. As a result, the new Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law has started its first hearings on 10 May. Chaired by the Democratic Senator Al Franken, Members include the Deputy Director of the Federal Communications Commission, Jessica Rich, Justin Brookman, Director of the Centre for Democracy and Technology, and as Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein. On the witness list are Apple and Google, amongst others. The Subcommittee will aim to ‘make certain that protecting consumers’ privacy will keep pace with advances in technology’.

And perhaps that is exactly where the problem lies, do current privacy laws properly cover rapidly evolving technologies that are being used in smartphones, tablets and cell phones? Given the latest developments, the answer should most likely be answered negatively. Is merely making recommendations to the industry sufficient, such as the FTC’s report, Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change: Recommendations for Businesses and Policymakers, published at the end of March, announcing to start a dialogue with the industry. This makes you wonder whether that approach is too naive: are many app developers really interested in privacy concerns? After all; the mobile apps industry is still growing rapidly and commercial advertising opportunities seem endless. The sky is the limit, if only privacy was not such an issue.

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