Originally published: February 1, 2013
Last updated: February 15, 2013 - 12:03am
The Federal Trade Commission issued a staff report recommending ways that key players in the rapidly expanding mobile marketplace can better inform consumers about their data practices.
The report makes recommendations for critical players in the mobile marketplace: mobile platforms (operating system providers, such as Amazon, Apple, BlackBerry, Google, and Microsoft), application (app) developers, advertising networks and analytics companies, and app developer trade associations. Most of the recommendations involve making sure that consumers get timely, easy-to-understand disclosures about what data they collect and how the data is used. The report describes the explosive growth of mobile services: in the fourth quarter of 2012, consumers worldwide bought approximately 217 million smartphones. Smartphones and tablets offer a wide variety of benefits to consumers. They can be used to make audio and video phone calls, find the nearest coffee shop or gas station, check traffic, browse a digital library while waiting for an appointment, and connect with friends for spontaneous get-togethers. At the same time, the report states that mobile technology raises unique privacy concerns. More than other types of technology, mobile devices are typically personal to an individual, almost always on, and with the user. This can facilitate unprecedented amounts of data collection. In addition, since a single mobile device can facilitate data collection and sharing among many entities, consumers may wonder where they should turn if they have questions about their privacy.
The report cites recent data showing that consumers increasingly are concerned about their privacy on mobile devices. For example, 57 percent of all app users have either uninstalled an app over concerns about having to share their personal information, or declined to install an app in the first place for similar reasons. Less than one-third of Americans feel they are in control of their personal information on their mobile devices.
The report recommends that mobile platforms should:
- Provide just-in-time disclosures to consumers and obtain their affirmative express consent before allowing apps to access sensitive content like geolocation;
- Consider providing just-in-time disclosures and obtaining affirmative express consent for other content that consumers would find sensitive in many contexts, such as contacts, photos, calendar entries, or the recording of audio or video content;
- Consider developing a one-stop “dashboard” approach to allow consumers to review the types of content accessed by the apps they have downloaded;
- Consider developing icons to depict the transmission of user data;
- Promote app developer best practices. For example, platforms can require developers to make privacy disclosures, reasonably enforce these requirements, and educate app developers;
- Consider providing consumers with clear disclosures about the extent to which platforms review apps prior to making them available for download in the app stores and conduct compliance checks after the apps have been placed in the app stores; and
- Consider offering a Do Not Track (DNT) mechanism for smartphone users. A mobile DNT mechanism, which a majority of the Commission has endorsed, would allow consumers to choose to prevent tracking by ad networks or other third parties as they navigate among apps on their phones.
App developers should:
- Provide just-in-time disclosures and obtain affirmative express consent before collecting and sharing sensitive information (to the extent the platforms have not already provided such disclosures and obtained such consent);
- Improve coordination and communication with ad networks and other third parties that provide services for apps, such as analytics companies, so the app developers can better understand the software they are using and, in turn, provide accurate disclosures to consumers. For example, app developers often integrate third-party code to facilitate advertising or analytics within an app with little understanding of what information the third party is collecting and how it is being used.
- Consider participating in self-regulatory programs, trade associations, and industry organizations, which can provide guidance on how to make uniform, short-form privacy disclosures.
Advertising networks and other third parties should:
- Communicate with app developers so that the developers can provide truthful disclosures to consumers;
- Work with platforms to ensure effective implementation of DNT for mobile.
- App developer trade associations, along with academics, usability experts and privacy researchers can:
- Develop short form disclosures for app developers;
- Promote standardized app developer privacy policies that will enable consumers to compare data practices across apps;
- Educate app developers on privacy issues.
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