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App developers face mounting pressures on privacy

While Apple was the focus of the outcry this week over how some mobile applications are collecting and keeping users? mobile contact lists, the controversy also points to the need for app developers to take privacy issues more seriously.

With privacy advocates and members of Congress expressing concern over the revelation that some iPhone apps are collecting and holding on certain user data, Apple said it would take steps to address the situation. However, a new report from the Federal Trade Commission reviewing the privacy guidelines of mobile apps used by children suggests the problem may be more widespread.

?People really love their phones and generally are really happy with the experience,? said Jules Polonetsky, director and co-chair of the Future of Privacy Forum, Washington. ?I think the likelihood is that the platforms are going to feel more pressure to do more to control the experience.

?Some of that is positive because there are holes that should be closed,? he said. ?But some of it should be the app developers? responsibility.?

Policymakers eye mobile
The problem started when reports starting surfacing that iPhone apps for Path, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and others are uploading users? contact names and phone numbers ? often without permission. This was followed by a request from Congress for Apple to provide more information about its privacy policies.

In response, the technology company said it would begin requiring iPhone and iPad apps to seek explicit approval before accessing users? address book data.

The Federal Trade Commission this week came out with a report showing that neither app stores nor the app developers provide the information parents need to determine what data is being collected from their children, how it is being shared or who will have access to it.

?The FTC has made mobile a priority in 2012,? Mr. Polonetsky said. ?They are actively looking at a number of companies and this study is just one example of the focus they are going to continue to put on this area.?

In the address book controversy, users had accessed these apps to find a friend, for example. However, many were surprised to learn that the apps in question were uploading their contact information and holding onto it.

By not asking permission to use the data in this way the apps ended up creating more of a controversy than if they had asked in the first place.

?Not asking raises controversy over who is in control of the data on their phone,? Mr. Polonetsky said.

?It is clear that app developers do not have years to get this right,? he said. ?There are some who say these are all startups that are growing quickly and it is too soon to have rules in place because we do not know yet what the business models are.

?The reality is that companies are getting a huge amount of data and the effort to getting privacy right is just as critical and getting an app to work.?

The pressure is on platforms such as iOS and Android to lock down these privacy issues. However, such a scenario ? or if policymakers end up regulating this area ? could end up dampening creativity for app developers.

Stifling innovation
This is why app developers need to do a better job of insuring they get privacy right.

?Do we really want the platforms to be in control of everything that programmers do, do we really want them to be the gatekeepers?,? Mr. Polonetsky said.

?If policymakers end up driving the solution, it will stifle the innovative ideas that app developers have,? he said. ?It ought to be about the app developers stepping up.?

There are signs that the mobile community is starting to understand the need for app developers to take a bigger role in privacy issues.

The Application Developers Alliance is a new trade group representing app developers that has privacy on its agenda.

Additionally, the Mobile Marketer Association has put out privacy policy guidelines for app developers.

There is also, a project of the Future of Privacy Forum intended to provide app developers with the tools and resources needed to implement trustworthy data practices.

?For their own betterment, developers need to insure that incredible access they have continues by building trust,? Mr. Polonetsky said.

Final Take
Chantal Tode is associate editor on Mobile Marketer, New York