Five Ways the FTC Hopes to Protect Your Privacy on Mobile Devices

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The Federal Trade Commission recently had a meeting with Congress to explain how it is protecting consumers’ privacy on mobile devices. The FTC said it is working to create solutions that protect consumers without stifling technology innovations, but what exactly does that mean for the millions of smartphone and tablet users out there?

In no particular order, here are five highlights from the testimony you need to know:

  1. The FTC isn’t afraid to take legal action against companies that fail to protect our basic rights and privacy on mobile devices. For example, the FTC alleges Google deceived gmail users by collecting their information to generate and populate a new social network, Google Buzz, without users’ consent. As part of the proposed settlement agreement, Google must protect the privacy of all of its customers — including mobile users. In another example, the FTC alleges Twitter had poor security controls in place that allowed hackers to hijack user accounts and access private user data.
  2. The rapid growth of mobile technologies offers unprecedented levels of data collection, which are often invisible to consumers. It’s these rapid changes that worry the FTC, and it thinks current privacy laws haven’t kept pace with these changes at all.
  3. The FTC may not be able to stop mobile app developers from collecting or selling your personal information. If the app creator doesn’t have a privacy policy at all, the FTC can’t charge them with either deceptive business practices or unfair conduct. In other words, the FTC can’t accuse the companies of breaking their promises to users if no promise was ever made in the first place.
  4. Mobile platforms also need “Do Not Track” legislation so app creators can’t collect user information without the consumer knowing. The FTC is currently examining how Do Not Track could be applied to mobile applications. Already a feature on several major web browsers, it allows consumers to opt-out of all online tracking.
  5. The FTC is serious about protecting kids’ online privacy. David Vladeck, the FTC’s director of Bureau of Consumer Protection, cited a Pew Internet Research study that shows the number of twelve to seventeen year olds with a cell phone increased from 45% in 2004 to 75% in 2009. “The Commission has a long history of working to protect the privacy of young people in the online environment. In recent years, the advent of new technologies and new ways to collect data, including through mobile devices, has heightened concerns about the protection of young people when online.” He added that he hopes recent enforcement actions against Playdom, which operates 20 virtual gaming worlds for kids, would send a signal to the industry. Playdom recently agreed to pay $3 million to settle allegations that it violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule by illegally collecting and disclosing personal information from hundreds of thousands of children under age thirteen without their parents’ prior consent.

This testimony comes just as The Wall Street Journal highlights several of these same consumer privacy concerns in a new report that reveals your overall lack of privacy while using Facebook and Twitter. Look for our review of the WSJ study this Thursday, when we outline some of the more eye-opening facts and explain what they all mean for you. If you have any questions before then, let us know in the comments below.

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Elaine Rigoli

Elaine Rigoli is PRIVATE WiFi's manager of digital content strategy.