There has been considerable controversy about mobile applications’ downloading users’ personal data after it was revealed that photo-sharing mobile application Path uploaded users’ entire address books without permission, and there was substantial public criticism of the company’s actions. Then it was revealed that both Apple’s iOS mobile devices (iPhone, iPod, iPad) and Google’s Android mobile devices allowed apps to access users’ photos if users allowed location datasharing (in the case of Apple) or if the app can go on the Internet (Google). There was public outrage, and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google and Apple over these privacy problems. House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman and Commerce Manufacturing and Trade Subcommittee Chair G.K. Butterfield have sent a letter to Apple seeking answers about the photo privacy issue.
A Commerce Department agency, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, has identified mobile privacy as a possible top priority as it moves forward with a “multistakeholder process” to create codes of conduct for companies. The Federal Trade Commission recently released a report, “Mobile Apps for Kids: Current Privacy Disclosures Are Disappointing” (pdf), discussing the results of a survey of mobile apps for children. “The survey shows that neither the app stores nor the app developers provide the information parents need to determine what data is being collected from their children, how it is being shared, or who will have access to it,” the agency said in a press release.
Now, the Mercury News takes a look at the privacy issues raised by smartphone apps:
Smartphone in hand, you tap into your local app store. You click on a nifty tool that promises to massage your belly and pat your head at the same time. But just as you’re about to download it, you decide to click on that little Terms of Service icon. And you’re hit with a phone-book-sized data dump of not-so-fine fine print.
On top of all the privacy battles already under way across the Internet, the boom in mobile apps has ramped things up even more, with waves of service terms and security policies at every new download. […]
The number of apps is exploding, with nearly 600,000 for sale in the Apple (AAPL) App Store alone. So, too, are the number of worrisome stories about things like “data leaks,” where your contact list, for example, is mysteriously downloaded by that cool gaming app you just selected. Meanwhile, the torrent of fine print just keeps coming. […]
Federal and state regulators, along with privacy advocates, are pushing for more clarity and transparency in the way apps may use personal information, including your name, gender and email address, as well as your hometown, family relationships or religious and political affiliations.
Various versions of a so-called “privacy bill of rights” for mobile phone users are circulating and being adopted by some app developers. And California Attorney General Kamala Harris’s office is working with Google (GOOG), Apple and other platforms to streamline and simplify the way developers explain the privacy policies and user terms for their apps. One idea is to offer more opt-in pop-ups that warn you each time your personal data is about to get mined and asks for your permission.
But for now, making sense of “these terms can be overwhelming,” said Chris Conley, the technology and civil liberties fellow with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.