Mobile app transparency should be led by developers, not the government

Shane Schick

There is a big difference between using a mobile app while you're out in public and having the personal information you've shared on that app let loose in the public domain. The sooner we all recognize that, the better. Last week marked the third meeting of privacy advocates, marketing executives and other stakeholders convened by the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration to try to develop a code of conduct for what they're calling mobile app transparency.

The concern from groups like the Center for Digital Democracy and others is that, among other things, too many developers are collecting data about consumers without their proper consent or understanding. This doesn't seem to be driven by any major incident of consumer information being exposed in any harmful way. It's more a case of the watchdogs not being entirely sure what's going on, and offering some preventive measures before there's some kind of public outcry. 

Unfortunately, after two previous attempts at getting this project underway, things seem to be at a standstill. A story on the National Journal summed it up as follows:

Wednesday's half-day session hosted at the Commerce Department centered on trying to narrow down the list of topics that stakeholders should begin focusing on. While some industry representatives argued that the process needs to begin by nailing down a definition of a mobile app, privacy advocates said there needs to be a better understanding of what practices the industry is engaged in right now including what information is being collected from app users and how is it used.

Good luck with that. Achieving the latter goal would require a significant research effort, a lot of voluntary disclosure on the part of developers and the results could be open to a fairly wide degree of interpretation. As for defining a mobile app, it would have to encompass everything from GPS systems to social networking services. And whether or not every app under the sun would fit into whatever definition the NTIA and the others come up with, the point is make sure everyone puts the best interests of citizens first and foremost.

As laudable as the Commerce Department's efforts are, they risk getting bogged down in a sea of detail and attention to process. Creating umpteen subcommittees and creating novel-length findings that no one will bother to read won't help anyone in the long-term. It might make a real difference--and quickly--if a few developers would step up and provide objective lessons in proper mobile app transparency. Although the Application Developers Alliance is involved in the NTIA talks, an industry association's contribution will never have the visibility or impact of some companies that act as role models for the profession at large.

When you surf most developers' sites today, the content is almost always the same. There's an About Us, a blog, a Contact Us and sometimes a demo video next to the download links. If there's a real privacy policy at all, it might be buried under the About Us page, if a consumer took the time to search for it.

Instead, look at how Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook have made transparency more visible when apps are synched with their services. In a few bullet points, users immediately know what information is collected (profile data, your friends, etc.) and what the app will be allowed to do through the service, such as posting updates on a user's behalf. This isn't necessarily a perfect process, but it's a good starting point for app developers to take further, whether they connect their apps to social tools or not. Developers certainly have a responsibility to protect their users' privacy, a topic that we delved into in more detail in this FierceDeveloper article.

Imagine a developer who treated privacy with the same priority they treat discoverability, monetization and all the other goals common to app makers. He might get more downloads, stronger user loyalty and perhaps even influence the way in which government and other groups create best practices the entire industry will have to follow. Until that happens, the future of app transparency looks more than a little opaque.--Shane