Feds Probe Mobile App Privacy Safeguards

Consumer advocates emphasize how little they know about how mobile firms operate as Commerce Department continues probe of apps amid broader online privacy inquiry.

By Kennth Corbin
Thu, August 30, 2012

CIO

Feds Probe Mobile App Privacy Safeguards
A division of the Commerce Department on Wednesday convened industry representatives and consumer advocates for the third in a series of workshops as it moves toward developing a code of conduct to protect consumer privacy in the fast-growing mobile app space.

The meeting, which focused on procedure as much as policy, saw the airing of a laundry list of concerns that privacy advocates have raised with the way that companies use the information that they collect about consumers through mobile apps.

But although this is the third stakeholder meeting the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has convened on the subject, many of the participants stressed the preliminary nature of the inquiry.

[Related: Obama Backs 'Consumer Bill of Rights' for Online Privacy]

"We need to discuss what's happening now, how's [the data] being used, what does it mean for the user," said Jeff Chester, a longtime privacy advocate and the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "Obviously it's in the context of balancing monetization with consumer and citizen privacy and control, but a huge amount of data [collection] we know is now occurring within the apps. It's now firmly part of the online marketing system. Let's be realistic, identify all the data usage, and then we can determine how to proceed."

Jonathan Zuck, the president of the Association for Competitive Technology, took it to an even more rudimentary level, urging the stakeholders and NTIA officials to first set the parameters of the discussion, pointing out that an in-car GPS navigation system is a very different technology from, say, a social networking utility designed for a smartphone, but both could be considered mobile apps. But who would argue that the privacy implications are the same?

"I think defining mobile apps is a critical first step," Zuck said.

NTIA's inquiry is just one of several ongoing probes into the data-collection practices of digital marketers, service providers, Web companies and other digital players underway at the federal government and industry and standards groups.

The probe into mobile applications is part of a larger examination of the privacy implications of the digital economy at the Commerce Department, which has called on Congress to enact legislation to establish baseline consumer protections. The White House has echoed that position in explicitly calling for a consumer bill of rights to safeguard user privacy online.

Additionally, the Federal Trade Commission has been eyeing online consumer privacy issues for several years, and recently articulated a proposal for a do-not-track mechanism that would be built into the Web browser, creating an opt-out list in the fashion of the popular Do-Not-Call registry that governs the activities of telemarketers. The Commerce Department's proposal for privacy legislation would give the FTC new authorities to regulate Internet companies, powers that the FTC sought, but failed to secure, in the financial regulatory reform bill that was signed into law in 2010.

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