FTC wants mobile firms to do more to protect consumer privacy
By Chantal Tode
February 5, 2013
Path will pay $800,000 to settle privacy-related charges
The Federal Trade Commission continues to underscore its focus on mobile privacy, having reached an $800,000 settlement with social networking application Path over privacy-related claims and issuing new mobile privacy guidelines in the same week.
Mobile app Path will pay an $800,000 fine for allegedly collecting kids’ personal information without their parents consent in a settlement reached with the FTC last week. Additionally, the FTC weighed in on what steps should be taken to safeguard consumer privacy, including suggesting numerous ways that mobile platforms should take the lead.
“The FTC doesn't propose any new requirements that would interfere with the success of the app ecosystem, other than urging platforms to play more of a gate keeper role,” said Jules Polonetsky, co-chair of the Future of Privacy Forum, Washington.
“Although we do agree that platforms can do more, it is quite likely that in the near future, consumers will be accessing apps directly across not only from phones, but from computers, cars, the smart grid and elsewhere,” he said. “It may be limiting for regulators and for consumers to rely on platforms to decide which programs are acceptable on your computer and elsewhere.”
Apps in the spotlight
Mobile privacy is a growing concern for regulators, and app developers who do not pay attention take significant risks, as the Path settlement illustrates.
Path agreed to settle FTC charges that it deceived users by collecting personal information from their mobile device address books without their knowledge or consent and will pay $800,000. The claims include that Path collected information from children without their parents’ consent.
The settlement also requires Path to establish a comprehensive privacy program and to obtain independent privacy assessments every other year for the next 20 years.
Mobile privacy best practices
In a staff report issued by the FTC last week, it recommends how mobile companies can make sure consumers get timely, easy-to-understand disclosures about what data they collect and how the data is used.
The best practices are meant to help companies build trust in the marketplace so that the market can continue to thrive, per the FTC.
The report is based on FTC’s experience with mobile issues as well as workshop that was help last spring that brought together representatives from across the industry as well as academia and consumer privacy groups.
The report underscores the unique privacy concerns found in mobile as these devices are personal to an individual, almost always on and within arm’s reach. As a result, mobile can facilitate unprecedented amounts of data collection about users.
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.
Do Not Track
Additionally, the report says mobile platforms should consider offering a Do Not Track mechanism that would enable smartphone users to choose to prevent tracking by ad networks or other third parties as they navigate among apps on their phones.
Other recommendations for mobile platforms include the development of a one-stop dashboard for reviewing what content is being accessed by the apps they have downloaded; developing icons to depict the transmission of user data and promoting app developer best practices.
“The FTC report is quite positive about many of the privacy advances that are taking place in the market,” said Christopher Wolf, co-chair of the Future of Privacy Forum.
“The Commission likes Apple's just in time pop-ups and Limit Ad Tracking features, Google's app dashboard, industry work on icons, the FPF Design For Trust Project with designer Ilana Westerman and the California effort that got privacy links into app stores,” he said.
Chantal Tode is associate editor on Mobile Marketer, New York
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