FTC details mobile app privacy concerns

20 MAY 2011

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) highlighted privacy issues around some mobile apps in a testimony delivered to Congress this week, noting that there was an urgent need to protect vulnerable young people which may be unwittingly disclosing private information. In its testimony, the Commission noted that “the Wall Street Journal has documented numerous companies gaining access to detailed information – such as age, gender, precise location, and the unique identifiers associated with a particular mobile device – that can be used to track and predict consumers’ every move.” The data also is used to target specific ads to users, the Commission added.

The testimony also notes that children and teens’ use of mobile devices is increasing rapidly. According to a Pew Internet and American Life Project, the number of 12 to 17 year olds who had a mobile phone increased from 45 percent in 2004 to 75 percent by 2009. The testimony states that young people are using their devices not only to make calls, but also are using new mobile apps that raise privacy concerns such as location-based tracking.

“In recent years, the advent of new technologies and new ways to collect data, including through mobile devices, has heightened concerns about the protection of young people when online,” the Commission said. In April 2010, the agency launched an accelerated review of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection (COPPA) rule that requires websites to get verifiable parental consent before collecting information from children under 13 years old.

Meanwhile, a preliminary FTC staff report on Internet privacy, released in December 2010, proposed a framework to protect consumer privacy while using mobile and mobile apps. This included a call for stakeholders to provide a mechanism to give consumers more control over the data that is being collected from them, including for purposes of delivering behavioural advertising. The Commission is currently examining how this mechanism – referred to as ‘Do Not Track’ – can be applied to mobile apps.

The FTC says it has taken a number of steps to focus on mobile technology, including hiring technologists and assembling a team to conduct research, monitor the various platforms, app stores, and applications, and train other agency staff on mobile issues.


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