Survey shows consumers are concerned with mobile app information use

by Mark Sableman, ABM’s Information Policy Counsel6a00d8341c639653ef017d3bfefa27970c

As regulators in Washington focus on mobile device privacy, a recent study shows that mobile device users are surprisingly aware of mobile privacy concerns, and fairly proactive in protecting their own privacy.

The study, by the Pew Internet Project, titled “Mobile Privacy and Data Management,” released September 5, reported that among the 43 percent of cell phone users who download apps for their phones, more than half proactively take steps to prevent sharing of their personal information with app developers. Specifically, 54 percent of app users have decided not to install a cell phone app when they discovered how much personal information they would need to share in order to use it, and 30 percent of app users have uninstalled apps after learning how much personal information they collected. In total, 57 percent of app users either uninstalled or declined to install apps because of privacy concerns.

These practices applied pretty much across demographic lines. Although young users were more likely than older ones to use apps, “users of all ages are equally likely to remove (or to avoid downloading) an app based on privacy concerns,” the report noted. And practices were similar for iPhone and Android users as well.

Three different federal government agencies (the Federal Trade Commission, the Commerce Department and the Federal Communications Commission), as well as California’s Attorney General, have targeted mobile app privacy as one of their top concerns. The Commerce Department picked mobile app privacy as the start-off topic for its “multi-stakeholder process” for developing privacy guidelines, for example. (ABM has been participating in that process through its lobbyist, Tom Carpenter of Wexler & Walker.)

Regulators have focused on two key concerns with mobile apps –- first, whether consumers really understand the sometimes lengthy and legalistic disclosures made about app developers’ information-collection practices, and second, whether collection of geo-location data (information about the user’s geographical location when he or she uses his device and its apps) violates privacy concerns. As the report noted, “Mobile devices store a wide array of personal (and potentially sensitive) data, from detailed search and browsing histories to up-to-the-minute information about one’s location or movements.”

At this point, it is unclear how the study findings might influence regulators. One could conclude that consumers are already well aware of privacy concerns, and making considered personal choices about sharing their personal and geo-location information with app developers -— thus suggesting that the marketplace is working. Alternatively regulators may argue that because the survey shows knowledgeable consumers cutting off information sharing, all consumers should be protected by requiring that data collection be turned off by default (i.e., an “opt-in” regime).

Mobile app privacy concerns arise in both b-to-c and b-to-b contexts. As the Pew report notes, “As nearly one-fifth of cell users (17 percent) use their cell phone for most of their online browsing, privacy and data management on mobile devices is increasingly emerging as a contested arena for policymakers, industry leaders and the public.” ABM’s Government Affairs Committee is actively examining mobile app privacy issues.

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