Some privacy advocates question mobile apps agreement

A code of conduct approved this week isn't enforceable, one critic says

A proposed code of conduct for mobile app developers intended to make them explain how user data is collected and used does not have a clear enforcement mechanism,  one privacy advocate said.

The code was negotiated this week by several trade groups and the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). While many participants in the NTIA's mobile privacy negotiations voiced support Thursday for the transparency code of conduct, Consumer Watchdog criticized the document and the NTIA process.

Just two participants voted to fully endorse the code, while 20 supported it, 17 voted for further consideration and one objected. Participants voicing support had no obligation to adopt the code, the NTIA said.

"This is absurd Orwellian doublespeak," John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project director, said in an email.  "A company can put out a press release saying it supports the transparency code, boosting its public image and then do absolutely nothing."

Several consumer and privacy groups voted to support the code, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Consumers Union, the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The code defines a short notice to provide consumers with information about the data collection and sharing practices of the mobile apps they use. The short notices tell consumers if the apps are collecting biometrics, browser history, contacts, financial information, health information, location, and other information.

NTIA Administrator Lawrence Strickling, called Thursday's vote a "seminal milestone in the efforts to enhance consumer privacy on mobile devices. "

Several software trade groups also praised the transparency code. The short notice will quickly and easily inform consumers about the personal information apps collect, said Jon Potter, president of the Application Developers Alliance.

"App developers know that consumer trust is critical to our industry's continuing success," Potter said in a statement. The agreement that "the model notices are ready for introduction and consumer testing is a win for both consumers and app developers."

But Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, criticized the NTIA's negotiation process. Chester, who abstained from the vote, had asked the NTIA to review existing mobile and app practices to determine the extent and range of data collection, but the agency didn't do that, he said.

"The NTIA process is seriously flawed," he said in an email. "It's as if a surgeon was allowed to operate without first examining the patient. [The agency] refused to make the industry discuss all the ways mobile apps use data and target users."

The code approved Thursday "is just words on a very small screen," Chester added.

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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Tags e-commerceConsumers UnionApplication Developers AllianceCenter for Digital DemocracymobileinternetprivacyElectronic Frontier FoundationU.S. National Telecommunications and Information AdministrationAmerican Civil Liberties UnionJeffrey ChestersecurityJon PotterCenter for Democracy and TechnologygovernmentJohn SimpsonadvertisingInternet-based applications and servicesConsumer WatchdogregulationLawrence Strickling

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Grant Gross

IDG News Service
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