Mobile Apps Under The Microscope

During discussion about the Colors app in the latest episode of This Week In Tech, Denise Howell, who is an intellectual property lawyer, noted that there are few if any privacy laws that apply to mobile apps. The particular feature of Colors being discussed is that it turns on the microphone to identify the event that you are attending, which it uses to aggregate pictures taken by everyone at the event. The issue is that people who install the iPhone app are not made aware that the microphone is being used and many may feel that is a violation of their privacy.

The discussion seems to be particularly germane in light of a Wall Street Journal article reporting that Federal prosecutors are investigating whether smartphone apps are illegally obtaining information without proper disclosure. Pandora specifically disclosed in an SEC filing that they received a subpeona from a federal grand-jury that is investigating the information sharing practices of smartphone applications.

Considering that we carry smartphones everywhere and that they are loaded up with things like GPS radios, microphones, gyroscopes, and proximity sensors, there is a risk that they can be used to track where we are and what we do. I expect laws will be created to make the capture and disclosure of information by smartphones without a person’s consent illegal.

While Android does a better job of informing users about what permissions an app has than the iPhone, I would like to see even more ways for the smartphone operating systems to inform us when certain actions are being taken. For example, there could be a function regarding the microphone or GPS on smartphones that acts like personal firewalls on a PC that automatically blocks turning them on and prompts the user whether they want the action to complete. If you say it’s ok, then the app could be added to a list that is allowed to use the microphone or GPS and thereafter you are never prompted for permission.

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