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    Recent Stories about Privacy and Consumer Devices and Services

    During the holidays, there were a number of stories about privacy and consumer devices, such as mobile phones, and services, such as social-networking giant Facebook.

    Wall Street Journal: Your Apps Are Watching You

    The Wall Street Journal took a look at smartphones and the apps that can be added to them. These apps can include games or social-networking services. The Journal found that there is collection of consumer data by apps on Apple iPhones and Google Android mobile phones.

    Few devices know more personal details about people than the smartphones in their pockets: phone numbers, current location, often the owner’s real name—even a unique ID number that can never be changed or turned off. These phones don’t keep secrets. They are sharing this personal data widely and regularly, a Wall Street Journal investigation has found.

    An examination of 101 popular smartphone “apps”—games and other software applications for iPhone and Android phones—showed that 56 transmitted the phone’s unique device ID to other companies without users’ awareness or consent. Forty-seven apps transmitted the phone’s location in some way. Five sent age, gender and other personal details to outsiders. The findings reveal the intrusive effort by online-tracking companies to gather personal data about people in order to flesh out detailed dossiers on them. […]

    Many apps don’t offer even a basic form of consumer protection: written privacy policies. Forty-five of the 101 apps didn’t provide privacy policies on their websites or inside the apps at the time of testing. Neither Apple nor Google requires app privacy policies.

    In a related article, the Journal explains: “It’s nearly impossible to prevent cellphone “apps”—games and other software—from transmitting information about a phone and its owner.”

    A few mobile marketing companies offer an “opt out” that prevents the use of tracking data to deliver targeted ads on websites viewed on cellphones. But most don’t apply to apps. […]

    Apple Inc. says the opt-out for its mobile-ad system, iAd, does work for apps because it is tied to users’ iTunes accounts rather than the Web browser. The opt-out (oo.apple.com) doesn’t prevent iTunes data from being collected. Google Inc. says it doesn’t offer an opt-out for ads in apps because it doesn’t create profiles of app users. It says its in-app ads aren’t targeted based on user profiles.

    Soon after the Journal articles about privacy concerns with smartphone apps, the Washington Post reported that some consumers had filed lawsuits alleging Apple and some app makers had violated their privacy. Washington Post: Apple, app makers hit with privacy lawsuits

    Two new class-action suits filed last week in U.S. District Court in California name the creators of Backflip, Dictionary.com, Pandora and the Weather Channel, among others, in addition to Apple. The suits follow attempts by federal regulators and lawmakers to set clear standards in the rapidly evolving – and often murky – world of digital data. […]

    One suit was brought by KamberLaw, a firm that specializes in consumer class-action suits and digital privacy, on behalf of a California resident. The second is led by Dallas lawyer Majed Nachawati of Fears Nachawati, representing consumers in Texas and California. Both accuse the companies of violating federal privacy laws, including the wiretapping act, for their financial gain. […]

    The suits said personal information at risk included users’ ages, gender and location along with a unique device identifying number, or UDID, that Apple assigns to all iPhones and iPads.

    In other news concerning mobile phones and privacy, the Mobile Marketing Association — which includes mobile advertisers, publishers, and media companies — announced “it’s working on a new set of privacy guidelines to supplement its current Global Code of Conduct.” CNET: Mobile industry group wants new privacy rules

    Created in 2008, the Code of Conduct established that mobile marketers must ensure that consumers can opt in and out of ads and that information gathered through ads be used responsibly.

    But with ongoing concerns about online privacy, the MMA said it wants consumers to have a more transparent view of the process of information gathering and a better understanding of how that information is being used. Toward that end, the MMA is calling on more companies to join its privacy committee, which sets up certain guidelines for online data collection. The group also intends to discuss the issue of online privacy at its upcoming Consumer Best Practices meeting on January 25 and 26. […]

    The government is also getting involved in the issue, another factor that’s likely spurring the MMA to act. Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission released a report on online privacy in which it discussed the idea of a “do not track” for the Web policy, similar to the current “do not call” list that bans telemarketers from calling people.

    In other news concerning consumer privacy, social-networking site Facebook and Google’s social-networking service Buzz made CNN’s list of top 10 tech failures because they had privacy problems in 2010. CNN: The 10 biggest tech ‘fails’ of 2010

    5. Facebook privacy

    Nothing on the internet elicits as much squawking as a change to Facebook. Any change will do, really.

    But this spring, some of the roughly half-billion users on the site got really miffed when a handful of privacy bugs, among other things, made private chat conversations briefly visible to Facebook friends. […]

    6. Google Buzz

    Buzz was supposed to be Google’s entry into the world of social networking in much the same way that Google Wave, which Google killed in August, was supposed to revolutionize real-time communication.

    But it didn’t help that, right out of the gate, Buzz’s default settings amounted to a privacy breach. Basically, if users didn’t tweak things at set-up, the people they e-mailed and chatted with the most through Gmail automatically became their followers.

    So, theoretically, someone only needed to take a quick look at your profile to see who you interacted with the most in forums that most people assume are private.

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