Privacy issues have made a lot of headlines lately. Between the Congressional tug-of-war over SOPA and PIPA and Google’s ungainly attempt to plant cookies in iOS devices, an everyday user might believe that nothing is safe once you venture into the Internet’s ether. A lot of people think climbing the Hogsback on Mt. Hood, like the climber in this picture, is not safe either. Of course, there are risks in both activities. We’ll leave the risks of alpine climbing to another forum while we explore privacy and mobile app usage.
Disclosure of private information is unquestionably a serious problem. When it comes to mobile apps, part of the problem lies in the fact that when developers create new products in an already crowded market, they often put all their energy and talent into ensuring the product is useful and of high quality, and few of them do so with a copy of the Fourth Amendment on their desktops. Take, for example, the social networking app Path. Path recently made headlines when it became known that it was uploading all its users’ contacts to an external database. Users screamed, the media sensationalized the issue, and Path quickly issued an apology, deleted the database, and issued software updates to allow users to opt in to the upload in the future. While there’s certainly a lesson on the benefits of full disclosure to be learned here, the fact of the matter is that Path made use of that information to reach its full potential as a social networking app. It might have been a mistake, but it seems to be an honest one, driven by a desire to provide the best possible service.
A similar issue is brewing in mobile apps designed for children. HuffPost recently reported that a new government survey is expressing concerns over the non-disclosure of uploaded data from various game and puzzle apps. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, known as COPPA, requires online service providers to obtain parental consent before accessing their children’s data, but it’s not clear the extent to which the law applies to mobile apps and devices. Of course, much of that data is collected to target ads at the younger demographic, but it’s also used to allow kids to network with their friends so they can play, socially, the games they enjoy. The iTouch hasn’t replaced the console – yet – as the gaming platform of choice, but game developers who provide a great experience for young users and their friends will continue to be successful.
Privacy issues are serious and should be taken seriously. The chances that your data will be compromised are not great, but there is a risk. Be aware of the risk, be cautious with your financial data, and use strong passwords.