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California Gets Privacy Enforcement Unit

Mounting concern about how businesses use personal information collected online prompts California Attorney General to launch dedicated privacy enforcement group.

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California Attorney General Kamala Harris on Friday announced the formation of a new privacy enforcement unit in the state's Department of Justice to defend individual privacy rights.

The creation of the Privacy Enforcement and Protection Unit reflects growing concern among regulators at both a state and federal level that privacy in the information age hasn't been adequately addressed. A series of online privacy controversies such as Google's bypass of privacy controls in Apple's Safari browser earlier this year and Apple's compilation of unprotected location data on iPhones last year have piqued the interest of lawmakers.

Noting that people now routinely share sensitive personal information on their phones, computers, and over networks, Harris said that consumers must be empowered to understand how personal information gets used so they can make informed decisions about what to disclose.

"The Privacy Unit will police the privacy practices of individuals and organizations to hold accountable those who misuse technology to invade the privacy of others," said Harris in a statement.

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The Privacy Unit will be part of the eCrimes Unit, formed last in December 2011. It will focus on law enforcement, education, and prompting partnerships with companies to advance privacy.

In February, Harris convinced six major companies with mobile platforms--Amazon, Apple, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Research In Motion--to ensure that app developers include privacy policies that comply with the California Online Privacy Protection Act in their apps. The law requires commercial websites and online companies to post a conspicuous privacy policy if information about California citizens is collected.

A study published in June by the Future of Privacy Forum, a privacy think tank, examined 150 top-selling apps in the iTunes App Store, Google Play, and the Amazon Appstore and found that 61.3% on average had a privacy policy.

Among those, free apps were more likely to have a privacy policy: 69.3% of free apps had one, compared to 53.3% of paid apps. Paid apps have a source of revenue other than advertising or in-app purchases. Presumably, this makes them less likely to use personal information in a manner that requires disclosure.

Sorted by platform, iOS apps were more likely to have privacy policies than Android apps in Google Play or the Amazon Appstore.

Later this summer, Harris is expected to check in with the major app platform companies to assess steps they've taken to improve mobile privacy.

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