Lawmaker pushes mobile privacy legislation

Markey's bill would require mobile companies to disclose when they are monitoring customers

A new bill in the U.S. Congress would require mobile phone makers, network providers and application developers to disclose to customers any monitoring software installed on their mobile devices.

The Mobile Device Privacy Act, introduced Wednesday by Representative Ed Markey, would also require mobile phone makers, network operators and app developers to get permission from customers before monitoring their mobile devices.

Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, announced the new legislation during a congressional hearing on the U.S. mobile apps economy. "Apps very commonly access our sensitive information -- our location, our photos, Web browsing, history," he said. "Apps often do this without prior notice and even when the app isn't actively being used."

While witnesses representing app developers called for fewer regulations, reports of mobile tracking through apps create a "significant societal issue that has to be discussed," Markey said.

The legislation requires companies that collect personal information through mobile devices to have policies in place to secure the data. It would allow the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and state attorneys general to take actions against mobile companies that violate the regulations. It would also allow customers to file lawsuits against mobile companies that violate their privacy.

The legislation is unlikely to pass, with Congress in session only about a month before November's general election.

But the Software & Information Industry Association, a trade group, said legislation is not needed. the SIIA called for app developers to work with interested groups to create privacy standards.

Markey's legislation is "the wrong way to go," Mark MacCarthy, SIIA's vice president for public policy, wrote in a blog post. "It would impose rigid privacy rules on the mobile industry that can only lead to stagnation and a loss of innovative dynamism. And what a loss that would be for such a dynamic, growing industry."

Congress should take a "light-touch" approach toward regulating the apps industry, added Morgan Reed, executive director of the Association for Competitive Technology, a trade group representing app developers. The apps industry has grown from nearly zero revenue four years ago to a US$20 billion industry today, and will continue to grow, he said.

Many U.S. consumers have little problem providing their email addresses and other personal information when they shop at a physical store, he added. "We've got a pretty good tradition in this country of allowing folks to enter into those kinds of agreements freely, because they benefit from it," he said.

ACT is working with app developers to be more transparent about the data they collect, Reed said. "We need to do a better job," he said. "We're working on it."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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