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Are we really concerned about privacy?

12/13/2012 2:34:00 PM

This week’s release of a report by the Federal Trade Commission claiming that mobile apps targeting children are collecting copious amounts of sensitive data should come as no surprise to anyone. Apps have quickly become the most invasive and least-regulated sector of the ever-changing technology landscape, and demonstrate better than Facebook or any other social network how laid-back we all are when it comes to choosing convenience over privacy.

To illustrate, check out the permissions that are required when you download Urbanspoon, a popular restaurant-finder app that’s available for the iPhone, iPad and Android devices:

[By downloading the app the user] allows the app to call phone numbers without your intervention. This may result in unexpected charges or calls.

…allows the app to take pictures and videos with the camera. This permission allows the app to use the camera at any time without your confirmation.

…allows the app to get your approximate location. This location is derived by location services using network location sources such as cell towers and Wi-Fi.

…allows the app to get your precise location using the Global Positioning System (GPS) or network location sources such as cell towers and Wi-Fi.

…allows the app to access the phone features of the device. This permission allows the app to determine the phone number and device IDs, whether a call is active, and the remote number connected by a call.

…allows the app to prevent the tablet from going to sleep. Allows the app to prevent the phone from going to sleep.

That’s not an app, that’s a stalker!

Now, these permissions are not unique to Urbanspoon, nor am I suggesting that Urbanspoon is anything other than an excellent way to find a nearby eaterie. The boilerplate text is lifted from Google Play and we can be sure that the exact same language is used in permissions for thousands of other apps. But the point is that millions of us are happily agreeing to allow unknown third-party developers to access our mobile devices and make phone calls, log the calls that we make, use the camera whenever they feel like it, and track our exact locations. If we are this cavalier with our own privacy, it’s not surprising that the FTC is worried about our kids!

I have often written about our propensity to talk the talk about digital privacy but do very little when it comes to implementing safeguards or even taking the most rudimentary measures to protect our personal information. The result is an industry that pushes the limits of privacy at every available opportunity, and only pulls back when threatened with fines or, heaven forbid, regulation.

Of course, the app developers who gather the data are not going to use that information to cause harm to you or your kids…well, not physical harm anyway. But there is a strong financial motive behind the permissions: they want to build a detailed profile of where you go (online and off) and what you like, so they can present customized ads and steer you towards in-app purchases. (Ever wondered why your kid’s first in-app purchase – which is often accidental – is quickly followed by others? That’s because apps closely track user behavior and waste no time in springing the same trap again and again.)

So the next time you are about to download an app and are presented with a long list of permissions, read what you are committing to and ask yourself whether you want strangers tracking your every move. The FTC is trying to look out for our kids, but only we can look out for ourselves.

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