California’s Mobile App Guidelines Highlight Consumer Privacy Protection

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“Your personal privacy should not be the cost of using mobile apps, but all too often it is,” according California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

That’s why, this month, the state became the first to issue privacy protection suggestions for mobile app developers. The 22-page report is called Privacy on the Go: Recommendations for the Mobile Ecosystem.

So Many Mobile Apps, So Little Privacy Protection

There are more than one million apps available on primary mobile platforms; and more than 1,600 apps released every day, according to two studies cited in the report.

Yet the vast majority of apps currently available don’t include even the most basic privacy protection.

Only five percent of all mobile applications offer a privacy policy, according to a study conducted by TrustE and Harris Interactive.

“Californians want to know what personal information these apps collect, how it’s used and with whom it’s shared,” Harris said in a statement.

The report offers these suggestions to app developers to protect consumers’ online privacy when they’re using mobile devices:

  • Privacy policies should be written in easy-to-understand language that can be read on mobile devices.
  • Mobile apps should avoid or minimize collecting personally identifiable information that isn’t needed for the apps to function normally.
  • They should include special notices when they collect sensitive information.
  • Mobile apps should allow customers to read their privacy policies before they download the apps.
  • Developers of mobile apps should use encryption to send and store personally identifiable information and limit employees’ access to it.

Why Your Online Privacy is Still at Risk

Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, praised the recommendations in the Privacy on the Go report as an important first step towards taming the Wild West in the mobile world.

Because the guidelines are only suggestions, the organization called on the state legislature to enact them into law to fully protect consumers’ online privacy.

But a coalition of the country’s leading marketing and media associations criticized Attorney General Harris for publishing mobile privacy guidelines without consulting the vast majority of companies and consumers likely to be affected by them.

The state did enact a privacy law back in 2003 – the California Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). But it only requires companies to create and display a privacy policy. Last December, Attorney General Harris took action to enforce COPPA, suing Delta Airlines for ignoring a warning that it had failed to post a privacy policy about what information it collected and how it will be used. But COPPA doesn’t address many of the online privacy issues covered in the Attorney General’s Privacy on the Go recommendations such as minimizing the collection of sensitive information, special notices or encryption.

The conspicuous absence of mobile privacy protection measures has been getting more attention since app makers were discovered downloading consumers’ address books without their permission. Since app makers tend to pay more attention to vendors’ policies than to government guidelines, Harris struck a deal with Apple, Amazon, Google, HP, Microsoft and Research in Motion last year to allow consumers to review an app’s privacy policy before purchasing the app.

Once Again It’s Profits vs. Your Privacy

That action by Harris, along with the mobile app privacy guidelines and the state’s lawsuit against Delta, demonstrates its commitment to pursuing a wide range of measures to protect consumers’ online privacy.

But it’s important to remember that a quarter of app revenue comes from advertising; and many mobile apps are ad-supported software. That’s why critics of the Privacy on the Go guidelines argue that the ad writing portion of the software is a part of many app’s basic functionality. For that reason, they say additional controls aimed at protecting consumers’ mobile privacy will have huge economic costs – both for compliance and revenue generation.

That undoubtedly means that any attempt by California to make its mobile app privacy recommendations mandatory will face stiff opposition. But whatever happens down the road, app developers have been put on notice that privacy protection is going to be getting a lot more attention in the nation’s most populous state.

 

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