Mobile app system claimed a threat to consumer privacy
By Chantal Tode
May 19, 2011
Who will prevail?
An industry challenge of California’s social media privacy bill and a new European Union report recommending location services be turned off by default will be on legislators’ minds at today’s mobile privacy hearing before the Senate.
The two developments are just the latest in a series of mobile privacy-related news in recent weeks following the release of information showing that Google and Apple’s mobile tracking was broader than consumers and legislators had previously realized. The news has included a couple of class-action law suits over Google’s mobile data collection practices.
“I think regulation is being written about mobile phone privacy, and the question is what will it look like,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, Washington.
The news that a coalition of Web giants including Facebook, Google, Twitter and Skype sent a letter to California’s Senate challenging its Internet privacy bill is likely to have an impact because of California’s importance to the privacy dialogue.
“California has been the leader in protecting consumers’ digital privacy and the industry is afraid that as California goes, so goes the nation,” Mr. Chester said.
The California bill in question wants social networking sites to institute broader rules covering consumer privacy.
Specifically, California’s bill would require social networking sites to ask consumers upfront about how much visibility they want into the privacy of their information instead of the just-in-time visibility controls that are now in place.
The law interferes with consumers’ right to free speech, according to a letter sent to the California State Senate this week by the coalition, which includes Google, Facebook, Twitter and Skype.
“SB 242 would notably interfere with the right to freedom of speech,” the letter reads. “Specifically, section 60(a) of the Social Networking Privacy Act would establish a barrier between an existing California user of a social networking site and her ability to continue speaking as desired.
"By hiding from view all existing users information until they made a contrary choice, the State of California would be significantly limiting those users' ability to ‘freely speak, write and publish his or her sentiments on all subjects.’”
The letter also argues that there is no indication Californians want their information removed and cannot do so.
“This bill, if passed, will have a cascading effect triggering other state laws across the country,” Mr. Chester said.
“A great deal of social media marketing is increasingly focused on the local level using knowledge from cell phones that a specific user is walking on a certain street,” he said. “The emergence of mobile and location targeting creates a new role for state and national regulation.”
The hearing today is before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance. A similar hearing was held last week.
The focus of the hearing will be on consumer privacy and protection in the mobile marketplace. Executives from Apple, Facebook and Google are expected to appear.
Further heating up the discussion around mobile privacy is a report from the EU’s highly regarded privacy advisory board, Art. 29 Data Protection Working Party, which makes the case for why mobile data requires significant safeguards.
Geolocation technologies such as base station data, GPS and mapped WiFi access points enables controllers to track a wide spectrum of smart mobile device use.
“Since smartphones and tablet computers are inextricably linked to their owner, the movement patterns of the devices provide a very intimate insight into the private life of the owners,” the report states.
“One of the great risks is that the owners are unaware they transmit their location, and to whom," the document states.
"Another related risk is that the consent for certain applications to use their location data is invalid because the information about the key elements of processing is incomprehensible, outdated or otherwise inadequate.”
The report from the European Union’s Art.29 Data Protection Working Party states that consent to use such data must be specific to the different purposes that the data is being processed for, such as profiling or behavioral targeting purposes.
The report also states that an opt-out mechanism is not adequate for obtaining informed user consent and, therefore, location services should be turned off by default.
The Working Party also recommends that users be reminded at least once a year regarding their consent.
With regard to employer use of smart mobile devices, the Working Party would like to see employers only adopt the technology when it is demonstrably necessary and the same goals cannot be achieved with less intrusive means.
“The mobile marketing industry has been given notice that the mobile app system is a threat to consumer privacy,” Mr. Chester said about the Working Party report.
“It is going to have a big impact in the U.S. because it is a signal to U.S. policy makers that they need to regulate mobile advertising,” he said.
Chantal Tode is associate editor on Mobile Marketer
Related content: Legal/privacy, Mobile, privacy, location-based data, social media, Center for Digital Democracy, Jeff Chester, California Internet privacy bill, Art. 29 Data Protection Working Party, mobile marketing, mobile
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