Senator Asks Apple & Google for Mandatory App Privacy Policies

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Senator Al Franken (D-MI) has written to Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt to ask both companies to require mandatory privacy policies for mobile apps that collect information via location services data. In a follow-up to the Senate hearing Mr. Franken convened on the subject of mobile privacy, Senator Franken made the request in a formal letter to the two CEOs.

 

Senator Al Franken
Senator Al Franken

 

Apple and Google were singled out because they run the two biggest online mobile app markets in the world. “Recent industry reports suggest that they each have more applications than the next five largest app stores combined,” he wrote.

“At the hearing,” he wrote in the letter, “I asked Dr. [Bud] Tribble [from Apple] and Mr. [Alan] Davidson [from Google] whether Apple and Google would commit to requiring that all applications in the Apple App Store and [Android Market] have clear and understandable privacy policies. I am writing today to renew this request, and ask if each of your companies would be willing to adopt this simple first step towards further protecting your users’ privacy.”

He made the case that few apps have such policies, while all apps should. He also noted that such policies from app developers wouldn’t magically eliminate all privacy concerns in emerging mobile markets, but said that, “it would be a simple first step” that would provide interested parties with a baseline of what kind of data are being collected, and how that data is being shared with third parties.

Failing a blanket requirement that all apps have such a policy, Senator Franken asked that at least those apps that use location services data be required to do so. He wants those apps to, “clearly specify what kind of information is gathered from users, how that information is used, and how it is shared with third parties.”

He closed by trying to hold both companies accountable for matching deeds with words, saying, “Apple and Google have each said time and again that they are committed to protecting users’ privacy. This is an easy opportunity for your companies to put that commitment into action.”

The implied meaning of the letter is that if Apple and Google were to require their app developers to include (and follow) such policies, they could avoid possible federal regulation on the issue. What’s interesting is how this would be practically managed by Google.

While Apple’s notorious control over its App Store and the contents therein would make instituting such mandates trivial from Apple’s point of few (though potentially burdensome for some developers, especially small developers), Google’s Android Market isn’t curated. Google can require such a policy all day long, but without some kind of curated litmus test for these policies, the company isn’t in a position to know that its apps comply.

Still, having the mandate would be a shift towards the benefit of consumer if even a small percentage of additional app developers adopted privacy policies.

Neither Apple nor Google have yet responded to Senator Franken’s letter.

Comments

rplat

This guy is a freaking nut . . . and don’t tell me about his academic credentials, Harvard products plenty of certified nuts.

Garion

This suggestion from Senator Franken can only mean one thing:
The Senator didn’t understand the answers Apple and Google gave him at the hearing.

Terrin

Franken is a smart guy. Probably amongst the smartest in Congress, and can outwit most people he is speaking with. Further, he seems genuinely concerned for people. With all that said, I really do not see the point of him taking Apple and Google to task. Unlike Apple (and to a lessor extent Google), the carriers actually do track and retain user location data.

Further, when you sign up for a magazine subscription the publishers aren’t telling people hey by the way we are selling your information that you gave us to third parties. I just read my bank privacy policy that was buried in the deep layers of its website and was almost impossible to find. It essentially said it can and will give my private information to anybody it pleases. It doesn’t advertise that.

Nonetheless, I trust Apple with my information before Google or most other third party companies.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

The difficulty isn’t in crafting a privacy policy. It’s in putting the controls on data in place to ensure it. One place where similar compliance has been required is financial data, such as credit cards. Small firms deal with credit cards via secure terminals or payment systems like PayPal that put a layer over them. I’d expect many developers to just insulate themselves from this data, and ad networks to assist them. So perhaps instead of installing free app A with location-based ads subsidizing it, you’ll install free app A and ad network B. A will not work without B present, but B will the app that you agree to allow tracking of you and your device. Uninstall or deny permission to B and A no longer works.

Alternatively, developers may just adopt a short standard “FU Privacy Policy”, allowing them to collect any data they want, associate it as they wish, and sell it to anyone they want. That probably puts end-users who are concerned about the gathering of their location data in a worse position. At the same time, if this twit who allegedly beat up the Giants fan at the Dodger game was actually baby-sitting his daughter on Cesar Chavez Day instead of brutalizing a guy in a Chavez Ravine parking lot, he’d be pretty stoked to have an ad network exonerating his ass about now.

The thing that makes Franken a punchline is that he thinks he’s smart enough to decide how this should all work. He can’t. Users and developers will just route around him while he aims at the big vendors.

dhp

The thing that makes Franken a punchline is that he thinks he?s smart enough to decide how this should all work.

Doesn’t that statement describe just about every member of congress on any given issue? Al’s one of the smarter ones.

Chris

Fraken was a hack as a supposed comedian and he is a larger hack as a politician.

Tiger

Hey, but at least he “asked.”

tongue laugh

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