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FTC puts spotlight on data collection in mobile apps

Mobile applications are facing growing scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission as the agency builds up its public education around mobile and continues to speak out about the need for a universal do-not-track mechanism.

One of developments was a new set of questions and answers for consumers on the FTC Web site that are intended to help them protect their privacy when using mobile apps. In addition, statements made by the FTC in front of Congress and to a group of consumer advocates point to its belief that there should be a do-not-track mechanism for mobile. 

?Recent public disclosures about mobile data collection by Google and Apple have played an important role raising the profile of mobile privacy, including applications,? said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, Washington.

?The FTC recognizes that apps are the privacy smoking gun---hidden inside these appealing services are a range of data collection techniques which are hidden from consumers,? he said.

While the FTC is focusing on public education with its new set of guidelines, it could also be considering taking additional steps to safeguard consumers? privacy.

?The FTC's new public education effort is focused on mobile applications, but expect other actions to come--including enforcement,? Mr. Chester said.

Informed consumers
The precipitous growth in mobile apps explains some of the scrutiny.

Consumers downloaded 10.7 billion apps in 2010 and that number is expected to jump to 182 billion apps in 2015, according to new report from IDC. Apple and Google, two companies in the spotlight for their mobile data collection practices, each see 1 billion apps downloaded per month.

The FTC?s questions and answers for mobile apps addresses this growth by seeking to insure that consumers are informed about apps and their data collection practices.

?If you?re providing information when you?re using the device, someone may be collecting it ? whether it?s the app developer, the app store, an advertiser or an ad network,? the guidelines read. ?And if they?re collecting your data, they may share it with other companies.?

The guidelines also touch on the collection of location-based data on mobile phones.

?Your phone uses general data about its location so your phone carrier can efficiently route calls,? it states. ?Even if you turn off location services in your phone?s settings, it may not be possible to completely stop it from broadcasting location data.?

In another sign that mobile apps are on the FTC?s radar, commissioner Julie Brill discussed the need for a universal do-not-track mechanism to apply to applications during a speech this week at the Center for American Progess, according to published reports.

The focus on applications speaks not only to the rapid growth in the space but also the need for transparency from mobile companies over what data they are collecting.

?Any do-not-track regime has to apply to the mobile ecosystem,? Mr. Chester said. ?Companies working in the mobile and location space, if they are to succeed and win consumer confidence, are going to have been transparent about their data practices, and allow users to decide what can be collected and tracked.?

Industry receptive
The FTC also went before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation this week, where it stressed the need for a universal, one-stop choice mechanism for online behavioral tracking. 

The FTC suggested that industry has been receptive to the idea so far, with Mozilla, Microsoft and Apple developing new choice mechanisms for online behavioral advertising that seek to provide increased transparency.

Mozilla, for example, introduced a version of its browser that enables Do Not Track for mobile Web browsing, according to the statement. 

The statement also addressed the need for any do-not-track mechanism to be flexible.

?Of course, any Do Not Track system should not undermine the benefits that online behavioral advertising has to offer, by funding online content and services and providing personalized advertisements that many consumers value. For this reason, any Do Not Track mechanism should be flexible,? the FTC statement reads.

Final Take
Chantal Tode, Assoc. Editor, Mobile Marketer