2012-08-10 / Columnists

Your Life And Privacy

The Secret Life Of Mobile Apps
By Gille Ann Rabbin, Esq., CIPP/US

Mobile apps – software programs for mobile device operating systems, like your iPhone, iPad, or Blackberry – are helpful, fun, and sometimes free. But in spite of the fact that hundreds of thousands of apps are available online, and billions have been downloaded, data collection practices can be inconsistent, unclear, or absent. A consumer is often not in a position to make an informed choice about whether to download an app.

Apps collect data for different purposes and in different ways. Sometimes an app needs to collect your data to carry out its function. For example, an app giving you driving directions or finding you a nearby restaurant will need your location.

An app may access data unrelated to its function. It may collect consumer data to sell to advertising networks. The information gathered is combined with other information the ad networks have about us, added to our “profiles.”

The information that apps may collect can include your entire contact list, call logs, Internet search data, calendar data, data about sites you visited, your device’s location, its unique identification numbers, and information about your personal use of the app. It is not always easy to tell what data an app will access.

It is also not easy to tell how this data will be used. It is primarily used to market things to us, through ads targeted to us based on our profiles. Some of us like these ads, and some of us find them annoying. But other privacy issues are raised: Can our data be used for purposes besides marketing? Can employers get it? Insurance companies? The government?

Developers whose apps are available through well-known app stores like Apple’s must agree to follow mobile industry best practices, which require consumer disclosure, privacy policies, notices or “permissions.” Still, many apps do not provide these disclosures.

Regulators are focusing increasingly on mobile apps. With respect to apps geared to children, a Federal Trade Commission report released earlier this year found that many fail to disclose their data collection and use practices, and to obtain parental consent before collecting children’s personal information, as required by law.

California’s Attorney General recently entered into an agreement with leading app stores to provide privacy policies. Further, promoting transparency in how consumer data is handled by mobile apps is the first issue being addressed as part of the Obama Administration’s effort to implement its Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

Consumers should insist on clear disclosure about an app’s information privacy practices. Before you download that app that will keep your food journal on your mobile device, play a game, give you coupons to nearby restaurants, or provide instant sports scores, read and understand what disclosure is provided. Only then will you be in a position to make an informed choice about whether to download the app. Your privacy may not be as private as you think.

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