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A Privacy Bill Of Rights For Mobile Users

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) issued a statement calling for a bill of rights for wireless users. Because mobile devices are always on and store a vast amount of sensitive personal data (e.g., contacts, Internet usage, social networking website usage, GPS location, calendar, phone calls made and received, online banking, photographs, user-created documents, etc.), the EFF believes firmly that:

"... he stakes are even higher for manufacturers, carriers, app developers, and mobile ad networks to respect user privacy in order to earn and retain the ever-important trust of the public."

I agree with this position, and this blog has covered numerous instances where mobile device manufacturers, telecommunications providers, advertising networks, apps-store operators, and/or app developers working singularly or together have abused consumers' privacy. The EFF's proposed Mobile User Bill of Rights contains six items:

1. Individual control: Users have a right to exercise control over what personal data applications collect about them and how they use it. Although some access control exists at the operating system level in smart phones, developers should seek to empower users even when it's not technically or legally required by the platform. The right to individual control also includes the ability to remove consent and withdraw that data from application servers. The White House white paper puts it well: "Companies should provide means of with drawing consent that are on equal footing with ways they obtain consent. For example, if consumers grant consent through a single action on their computers, they should be able to withdraw consent in a similar fashion."

2. Focused data collection: In addition to standard best practices for online service providers, app developers need to be especially careful about concerns unique to mobile devices. Address book information and photo collections have already been the subject of major privacy stories and user backlash. Other especially sensitive areas include location data, and the contents and metadata from phone calls and text messages. Developers of mobile applications should only collect the minimum amount required to provide the service, with an eye towards ways to archive the functionality while anonymizing personal information.

3. Transparency: Users need to know what data an app is accessing, how long the data is kept, and with whom it will be shared. Users should be able to access human-readable privacy and security policies, both before and after installation. Transparency is particularly critical in instances where the user doesn’t directly interact with the application (as with, for example, Carrier IQ).

4. Respect for context: Applications that collect data should only use or share that data in a manner consistent with the context in which the information was provided. If contact data is collected for a "find friends" feature, for example, it should not be released to third parties or used to e-mail those contacts directly. When the developer wants to make a secondary use of the data, it must obtain explicit opt-in permission from the user.

5. Security: Developers are responsible for the security of the personal data they collect and store. That means, for example, that it should be encrypted wherever possible, and data moving between a phone and a server should always be encrypted at the transport layer.

6. Accountability: Ultimately, all actors in the mobile industry are responsible for the behavior of the hardware and software they create and deploy. Users have a right to demand accountability from them.

The industry would be well advised to comply now with this bill of rights, rather than wait, deflect, and avoid. It can simply look at the airline industry as an example of what happens when an industry abuses it customers, loses the public's trust, and is then forced to comply with a airline passengers bill of rights.


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