For the London Free Press – November 12, 2012
“Big Brother” brings to mind government surveillance over our daily lives. But in the era of smartphones and almost unlimited consumer connectivity, it is the mobile phone app industry that has the potential to follow our every move.
Apps can track our personalities and consumer preferences based on data collected on our mobile devices. The use and sharing of personal information by mobile apps has been controversial and the subject of privacy concerns by various privacy commissioners as well as irate users.
The privacy commissioners of Canada, Alberta and British Columbia recently issued a guide called Seizing Opportunity: Good Privacy Practices for Developing Mobile Apps to help mobile app developers include user privacy as part of their design process.
Privacy law compliance is a good selling-point for app developers. A 2012 survey mentioned in the guide found that 57% of app users in the United States uninstalled an app or declined to install an app in the first place over privacy concerns. Canadians are equally unwilling to give up personal information. In a 2011 survey, only 22% of smartphone users said they would give an app developer demographic or geographic information about themselves in exchange for a free app.
The collection of personal information from mobile phones has become a major concern among Canadians. In the same 2011 survey, nine out of 10 Canadians were concerned with businesses requesting too much personal information, the information’s security and the possibility that the information was being sold to other organizations.
If app developers can find efficient, user-friendly ways to comply with privacy laws, and communicate to users that privacy and privacy laws are being respected, it will benefit both the developer and the consumer. Evidence indicates that people are more likely to install apps that respect their privacy. Users benefit because they have the comfort of knowing that their personal information is secure. App developers benefit because they are selling a product users trust.
The guide points out transparency is key to privacy law compliance. It is also a way of gaining trust from users. Transparency involves telling users before they download the app what information will be collected and why, where the information will be stored, and justifying why information is collected. If an app developer does not need information, it should not be collected.
Mobile app developers are not solely to blame for the increasing privacy concerns surrounding information gathering on mobile devices. The small user-interface makes it difficult to design apps that convey the user’s privacy options in a user-friendly way.
In other words, few people read the tiny print on a tiny screen advising about privacy options. The guide suggests layering information, so that the important details are upfront, with links to details for those that seek more information. The guide also suggests creating a tool within the app that allows the user to customize their privacy settings.
Getting privacy right for any new technology, not just mobile, can be a challenge. The most effective approach is to think about it in the design stage.