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FTC: App developers, stores should take new privacy steps

App developers should make their privacy policies available in app stores, the report recommends

Mobile app developers should provide real-time disclosures to users on the personal information they collect and get permission to collect sensitive information, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has recommended.

Mobile app developers should also make their privacy policies easily accessible through app stores and improve their coordination with advertising networks, analytics firms and other third parties that provide services for apps so that the developers can better understand the software used by the third parties and provide accurate privacy information to users, the FTC said in a series of recommendations on mobile privacy released Friday.

Some mobile vendors and trade groups are doing a good job of protecting consumer privacy, but other companies need to improve, said outgoing FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz.

In addition to the recommendations, the FTC released educational materials on privacy aimed at small developers. "We've found that a number of small developers are rushing to get their cool, new technology out to the public, but not practicing privacy by design," Leibowitz said during a press conference. "Many don't know about their obligation to consumers."

The FTC recommended that mobile app stores should consider developing dashboards that allow app users to review the types of personal data accessed by the apps they have downloaded, and consider developing icons to depict the transmission of user data. App stores should also promote app developer best practices, and should consider new disclosures about how they review apps before making them available for download, the FTC recommended.

App stores should also think about offering a do-not-track feature for smartphone users, the FTC said.

The FTC report also called on mobile trade groups to develop short-form disclosures that app developers can use and to promote standardized app developer privacy policies that will enable consumers to compare data practices across apps.

"FTC staff strongly encourages companies in the mobile ecosystem to work expeditiously to implement the recommendations in this report," the report said. "Doing so likely will result in enhancing the consumer trust that is so vital to companies operating in the mobile environment."

The FTC hopes the report will help the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration as it works with app developers, privacy advocates and other participants on a code of conduct for mobile app privacy, Leibowitz said.

The FTC report covers some of the same ground as an effort by trade group the Association for Competitive Technology, said the group's executive director, Morgan Reed. ACT recently launched a developer education campaign that mirrors the FTC's call for more developer education, he said in an email.

ACT has also called for privacy dashboards, Reed added. "It is time we moved past long privacy policies that are seldom read and give consumers the information they want in a way that they are best able to digest," he said.

He called the FTC's recommendation that all mobile apps have privacy polices a "sensible step."

The FTC guidelines are an "appropriate contribution from the FTC to the rapidly evolving mobile apps market," added Steve DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice, an e-commerce trade group. "Innovators are addressing these recommendations by developing new ways for consumers to control their privacy," he said by email. "We hope that lawmakers won't be too eager to transform these helpful recommendations into stifling regulations."

The FTC recommendations come less than a month after California Attorney General Kamala Harris' office released its own set of guidelines on mobile privacy.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.


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