Privacy advocates like to call mobile phones for a more menacing name: tracking devices. Mobile applications track the pages of people surf, the products they buy, and watching videos. Many applications also consider locations of its users and, over time, collect their daily routines.
The concern with this type of monitoring data pushed to smartphones and tablets at the forefront of the debate on privacy. Critics say companies need to do a better job of revealing the type of information they collect and with whom we share it. The industry, on the other hand, is concerned that too many restrictions could interfere with their growth.
“Many companies are trying to do the right thing and step up to the plate,” says Maneesha Mithal, associate director of the privacy of the Federal Trade Commission and identity protection division. “But there are a lot of practices out there not disclosed to users.”
And there are a lot of users. Americans own more than 125 million smartphones and 50 million tablets. Among them, more than half of uninstalling an application or download one refused due to concerns about sharing personal information, according to a survey of nearly 2,300 adults last year by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Meanwhile, one in five cell phone users has disabled its location tracking devices to keep track of your applications whereabouts.
Last month, the FTC issued privacy guidelines for mobile application developers, intended to curb abuses. There are legal requirements, only suggestions. The agency proposes that application vendors publish privacy policies that are easily accessible through the app stores, which many already do. It also recommends that applications disclose when sharing user information with third parties such as advertising networks, which is also quite common.
More radical proposal is that the FTC application developers obtain explicit consent before accessing sensitive data such as location information, calendar entries, and pictures. In the ideal scenario for the agency, consumers before downloading an application to receive a notification balloon explaining briefly the type of data to be collected. Those who are uncomfortable might refuse to download. These are called just-in-time notifications, and are designed to complement the privacy policies, that most people can not read.
Greg Stuart, CEO of the Mobile Marketing Association, a trade group for the mobile advertising companies, agrees that much more needs to be done to improve privacy. The lack of consumer confidence, says, could hurt the industry in the long term. His group pushes its members to consider privacy before developing a new product, for example. Privacy policies are another important element to win the trust of consumers, says.
Stuart Group, which issued its own set of privacy guidelines, supports over self. Data collection is important for users to make content and advertising more relevant to consumers, he says, and give you a better experience. Sacrificing privacy and transparency is not required.
“It’s hard to put limits on an industry that is coming their way and gaining momentum,” says Stuart. “Companies continue to be attentive and vigilant about privacy policies in general and stronger define so that consumers are aware of how their data trail is being used.”
That’s not necessarily true, according to Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a digital rights group, adding that regulators should go beyond the suggestions and pursue intrusive behavior of industry. Mobile phones are as “spies in our pockets,” he says. Objections about the privacy policies not referred to the fact that companies are “reaping huge amounts of data about our lives.”
Many applications encounter problems of privacy, especially when it comes to applications for children. By law, companies must obtain parental consent to monitoring under 13 and post privacy policies. In reviewing hundreds of applications from children last year, however, the FTC found that only 20 percent revealed anything about their privacy practices. Many of the applications, it turned out, did not disclose who shared information about the location and phone numbers with third parties.
Dan Grigorovici CEO AdMobius, a company that helps publishers and mobile ad networks to better target their advertising, says the industry could do a better job of educating the public about privacy. Few people know that they can choose to follow, for example, or what it really is.
Grigorovici says AdMobius screened only through assigned unnamed data. Instead, we construct anonymous profiles based on the use of particular applications, the view content, and its location in time. Someone who visits a number of states can be categorized as a jet-setter, for example. In total, the company has more than two dozen categories.
More regulation would create greater standardization in the industry, Grigorovici says, but raises concerns about some of the proposals of the FTC. For example, just in time for the notifications could become annoying if too frequent or come in a variety of formats.
However, “I would not mind a little forced,” says Grigorovici. “We are a 15 – to 20-year-old business, and have not shown much proactivity”.