Commentary

FCC Told That App Developers Lack Incentives To Protect Privacy

Privacy advocates as well as some companies have long expressed support for "baseline" privacy legislation modeled on fair information practices principles. While details of exact proposals vary, many proponents say that at a minimum, companies should make clear what information is gathered and why, and allow consumers to decide whether they're willing to agree to the data collection.

Online ad companies have tended to oppose new laws, arguing that they already voluntarily notify consumers about privacy issues and allow them to opt out of the use of their data (though not its collection).

Now that smartphone apps have become more popular, and drawn more scrutiny, however, it's clear that many -- perhaps most -- of the companies collecting data about mobile users don't inform them about information-gathering techniques or about how that data is shared. A study by the Future of Privacy Forum found that 22 of the top 30 apps lack privacy policies; other studies have shown that many apps transmit data about users, including their devices' unique identifiers.

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One reason for app developers' nonexistent privacy policies, say consumer advocates and other observers, is that app developers have no incentive to tell users about data collection. "What's the stick?" asked the Center for Democracy & Technology's Justin Brookman at today's Federal Communications Commission forum on location-based services. In other words, if no laws require developers to give consumers notice and choice about data collection, and if the carriers and device manufacturers don't require developers to do so, why would they?

Carnegie Mellon professor Lorrie Cranor adds that for all of the talk about "privacy by design," privacy tends to be an afterthought for many mobile app developers, if they think about it at all. Many app developers are just "two guys in a garage," Cranor says. "They're just trying to come up with the most expedient way to get their app out."

While this hand-wringing over mobile privacy doesn't mean that new legislation is coming, it should at least serve as a signal to developers -- and the third parties who use information from wireless consumers -- that watchdogs aren't happy with the status quo.

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