The stalking apps bill raises questions all developers should answer

Shane Schick
When he was a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live, Al Franken knew how to turn hot-button political issues into big laughs. Now that he's a senator, however, he's tackling those same issues in a serious manner.

Last week Franken, the Senate Privacy, Technology and the Law subcommittee chairman representing D-Minn., was pushing forward legislation that would close a legal loophole allowing certain apps to run secretly on a mobile phone and transmit the user's location without his knowledge. The Location Protection Act of 2012--also known as the Stalking Apps Bill--is a way of bringing older laws that prohibit phone companies from disclosing someone's location into the mobile Internet age. For example, some apps would allow a jealous husband to track his wife's movements to try to prove infidelity. Sen. Franken and others argue that these kinds of apps are putting some users at risk and could lead to more incidents of domestic violence, among other dangers.

I doubt many of FierceDeveloper's readers offer or are creating anything that would be affected by the Stalking Apps Bill, but it's a good reminder that smartphones offer nearly as many vulnerabilities for the loss or misuse of personal data as they do opportunities to personalize and improve services. I've written before in this space about app privacy policies and the need for proactive disclosure, but this kind of activity goes well beyond simple customer profiling. It's about creating an improper balance of power between one smartphone user and another.

The fact that such activity may now be subject to criminal penalties should be welcomed by all developers as a sign of maturation in their industry. The more public authorities understand the real risks--and not merely the potential for risk--that derive from apps, the better they can take the kind of action that will protect citizens while leaving plenty of room for developers to innovate.

It also behooves developers to pay close attention to the legislation that passes because unintentional misuse of apps could become as incriminating as deliberate attempts to harm users. Apps by their nature are becoming more social and more about sharing than ever before, but how visible is this process to consumers? What kind of alternate use-case scenarios might come into the picture that would lead to threats, coercion or worse? How can developers as a group begin demonstrating they care as much about responsible sharing and use of location data as someone like Sen. Franken? Laws usually come out once the public sector understands the worst-case scenarios. Developers should aim to stay one step ahead of that.

One final thing to think about: apparently some of the apps that would fall under this bill cost as much as $50. That's probably because they offered a service that was considered unique and that provided information on which the consumer placed a high degree of value. If that's possible for an app category that gets legislated out of existence, developers should be able to create something--even a game--that could be monetized at least one-tenth as much.--Shane

P.S.  FierceDeveloper will be taking a break for the holiday season. We will be back in your inbox on Jan. 2. Enjoy the holidays!