Mobile app stores to require, disclose privacy policies

California's attorney general announced guidelines developed with major companies to make privacy policies readily available to mobile users

Apple, Google and other mobile platform providers will present privacy policies for all the apps offered in their stores as part of an agreement with the state of California.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced an agreement developed with mobile platform companies including Apple, Google, Research In Motion, Amazon, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft, to ensure that all mobile apps will offer privacy policies that users can read before downloading the app.

Although the plan technically only applies to apps in use in California, it will affect the global marketplace by making privacy policies visible to all users who download apps through the Android Marketplace, the App Store or any of the other platforms hosted by the participating companies.

Just 5 percent of all mobile applications offer a privacy policy, according to a study conducted by TrustE and Harris Interactive. (A developer survey conducted by the Future of Privacy Foundation found that one-third of apps offer such policies.) Even those that do have such policies often make the information available to users only after they have downloaded the app, which is when most programs grab data from the user's phone.

At a press conference in San Francisco announcing the agreement, Harris explained that it had previously been somewhat unclear to developers and platform providers whether the California Online Privacy Protection Act, which requires any "web site or online service that collects personally identifiable information through the Internet" to "conspicuously post its privacy policy," applied to mobile apps.

"There's been a question," Harris said, and "we have resolved that." Harris added that developers should be "on notice" that the state was prepared to enforce the newly clarified law, effective immediately, against both developers and platform providers that fail to comply.

"We take a great deal of pride in the technology that was born in our backyard," Harris said. "There's no desire on any of our parts to slow down what's potentially life-changing and world-changing technology. But we also shouldn't have to accept false choices" between privacy and access to innovation.

In a statement, Jules Polonetsky, director of the Future of Privacy Forum, agreed. "Apps can only provide innovative services to consumers if they use personal information responsibly," Polonetsky wrote. If they surprise consumers, he said, "they risk losing access to user data. The California agreement will ensure that consumers are protected and that the app environment continues to flourish."

The policy is, in some ways, symbolic. It will not limit what apps can grab from smartphones, which can include device ID numbers, email addresses, location, personal contacts and calendar entries. It simply requires apps to inform consumers, who, in fact, may not read such notices. Several privacy advocates and experts contacted by IDG News Service agreed that full resolution of the mobile privacy issue will have to include buy-in from platform operators and app developers, consumer education and potentially regulation.

The attorney general's announcement comes amid privacy controversies involving the social networking app Path, which is based in San Francisco, and Google, which was discovered by a Stanford graduate student to be tracking users' browser habits on the iPhone despite Safari's no-tracking default settings. Talks with the platform companies began in August of last year.

Asked how her office came to focus on mobile privacy, Harris said, "We all use apps." California also has "very tough rules against invasion of privacy," she said, "and those protections apply not only to intrusions by government but also by corporations."

Harris twice declined to comment on her office's position on Google's iPhone tracking.

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Cameron Scott

IDG News Service
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