Developers offered tips on mobile app privacy

Over-communicating, recruiting the right talent and knowing the law are all smart ideas, experts say at conference

Mobile app developers face a huge challenge in keeping up with the fast-changing landscape of data privacy law. They got some tips Wednesday at a conference devoted to the topic in San Francisco.

The services mobile apps provide, which often draw on location, contact lists and other personal data, are raising more and more questions about how appropriately that data is collected and used. Developers are having to ask themselves: Should I notify people when I collect data? Are certain things off limits legally? Am I protected if I tell my users what data I'm collecting? If so, where should I tell them that?

Those questions and others were debated during a conference on mobile app privacy at the University of California's Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.

"Consumers want convenience, social tools and relevance," said Kevin Trilli, vice president of product at San Francisco-based TRUSTe, which works to help companies safely collect and use customer data. "And privacy is hot now because of the data and behavior interaction that enables these apps," he said.

And it's not just smaller, new entrants facing these questions. Delta Airlines is in the midst of a lawsuit for allegedly failing to comply with a California law requiring websites and online services, including mobile and social apps, that collect personally identifiable information to clearly post a privacy policy.

One piece of advice for developers aiming to keep users happy: Don't be afraid to over-communicate. Displaying clear, friendly, plain-English language within the app whenever it asks for certain types of private information is not a bad idea, said Tim Wyatt, director of security engineering at Lookout, a San Francisco-based mobile security company.

"The question is always, 'Will someone be surprised if they find out we're doing this?' If there's a hint that that's the case, then that's when you need an explicit opt-in feature," he said.

For example, if an app has a feature that automatically uploads photos from a smartphone's camera roll, an artfully designed pop-up box could appear when the user gets to that point in the app, saying, "If you let us do this automatically, it will provide a faster, better user experience for you. Would you like us to do that?" Wyatt said.

Others commended this approach. "Most people may not read a long policy, but if you can put little things in along the way where it's most sensitive, that's good," said TRUSTe's Trilli.

Making these types of notifications appear consistently, while always providing consumers the option to opt-out, is also a good idea, others said.

"The thing people don't like is when things happen behind their back," said Casey Oppenheim, cofounder at, a startup based in Palo Alto that aims to help consumers understand what's happening with their personal information online. With apps that share content liberally among users' friends, for example, "maybe users won't like it, but if they know about it, if you give users some context about what's happening, you may be surprised what they're willing to accept," Oppenheim said.

"It's really about creating a dialogue between what the product does and what users' expectations are of their choices," agreed Jishnu Menon, data and product counsel at Mozilla.

Companies should also make privacy a central part of their internal ethos, speakers at the conference said. "Recruiting people who care about privacy and embedding them early into the product development process is extremely helpful," said Lookout's Wyatt. "Make privacy part of the company's culture."

Tech companies should also follow their gut. "If it feels wrong, it probably is wrong," TRUSTe's Trilli said.

Those on the regulatory side of mobile privacy issues, meanwhile, are tackling the issue in terms of actual privacy policies, which have sparked their own sets of questions.

The biggest problem consumers have with privacy policies is that it's too difficult to sift through all the legalese to make sense of them, said Morgan Reed, executive director of the Association for Competitive Technology, a trade group representing developers and IT companies.

The Federal Trade Commission, which enforces federal laws protecting consumer privacy, did not, however, have as many tips for how app developers could streamline their policies. "I can't give general advice like, 'This is how you write a privacy policy,'" said Laura Berger, an attorney with the FTC.

The policy will depend on the company and the services it provides, she said. "You need to start with the facts of your business," she said.

The California attorney general's office, however, did publish a toolkit for app developers earlier this year which provides step-by-step instructions on what companies should do as they begin to think about privacy concerns and the development of a policy around them.

California's privacy laws are generally viewed as having a major influence on how other states nationwide grapple with the issues surrounding privacy and mobile apps. Its laws also apply to any company that gathers personal information from people residing in that state, regardless of whether the company is based there.

Rather than resorting to subpoenas and enforcement actions, California attorney general Kamala D. Harris is also involved in an ongoing effort to encourage app developers to become compliant with state privacy laws on their own.

Still, some of the most sensitive pieces of information that companies need to think about are credit card numbers, geolocation, and users' contact lists, Travis LeBlanc, California's special assistant attorney general, said.

"Look at these things and figure out if you really need to collect them," he said. "If you don't need it, stop collecting it."

In spite of these recommendations, some conference attendees still craved more concrete guidance.

"What if I have a privacy policy that simply says, 'All your data belongs to me.' Am I good then?" said Jonathan Nelson, founder of the Silicon Valley-based Hackers & Founders.

The answer, according to the California attorney general's office, is no. The federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, for instance, prohibits developers from gathering information on pre-teenagers without their parents' consent, while the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act could restrict certain types of medical information from being gathered from users, and finally California's Online Privacy Protection Act says that companies must explicitly disclose what kinds of personally identifiable information they collect, said LeBlanc.

Basically, to avoid privacy pitfalls, companies should operate as if everything they do is public, some said. "It only takes one person thinking about privacy in a critical way to make you a headline," said Lookout's Wyatt.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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