Apple, Google Asked To Require Privacy Policies

Developers of iOS and Android apps may soon have to provide information about how they use location data.
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Apple and Google have been asked to require that their developers include privacy policies in their mobile apps if those apps utilize location data.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., made the request in a letter sent Wednesday to Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Google CEO Larry Page, following up on a recent hearing at which company representatives testified about location data privacy.

Concerns about how location data is being used flared up last month when researchers highlighted the presence of a database of location information stored unprotected on the iPhone. The findings prompted Apple to publish a lengthy explanation of how it uses location data to dispel misconceptions.

"Users are confused, partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date," Apple said.

Nonetheless, Franken sees a need for greater clarity in the form of privacy policies. Citing a report indicating that less than 20% of free apps include links to privacy policies, Franken said in his letter to Apple and Google that while there's a need for greater disclosure in all apps, he would at least like to see the two companies require privacy policies for apps that utilize location data.

"I ask that you require all location-aware applications in your app stores to provide privacy policies that clearly specify what kind of location information is gathered from users, how that information is used, and how it is shared with third parties," Franken wrote in his letter.

Andy Rubin, who runs Google's Android business, has characterized location data as "extremely valuable." Such data is only going to become more important as mobile commerce takes off. Google on Thursday launched a mobile commerce platform with Citi, MasterCard, First Data, and Sprint, hoping to encourage payments made through NFC-equipped phones.

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Whether the mandatory inclusion of a privacy policy in mobile apps will accomplish anything remains to be seen. A 2007 Federal Trade Commission found that consumers are "click-happy" and frequently accept online agreements without reading them. And in a February 2009 report to Congress on behavioral advertising, the FTC noted, "[P]rivacy policies have become long and difficult to understand, and may not be an effective way to communicate information to consumers."

Dan Davies, founder and president of AbleLink Technologies, which makes mobile apps that allow users with cognitive disabilities to authorize the transmission of location data to caregivers, said in a phone interview that a proposal like Franken's assumed perhaps too much about how location data is used. He said it could prove burdensome to impose such general policy inclusion requirement that treats all apps the same way.

Davies said his company's apps do not have a formal privacy policy but do give the individual user the choice about whether to share location data with caregivers.

"In our apps--Community Sidekick for the iPhone and WayFinder for Windows Mobile devices--permission to be remotely monitored is provided by user settings under the control of the person being tracked," Davies said in an email. "Thus, if the individual determines that he or she would like to have the benefit of knowing a caregiver is essentially watching over them while they are alone in the community, then those features are turned on to allow that to happen."

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