A new Federal Trade Commission report urges mobile app platforms and developers to better inform consumers about their privacy practices.  Mobile app platforms and developers should review their privacy policies to ensure accuracy, transparency and appropriate level of consumer choice.

On February 1, 2013, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a report entitled "Mobile Privacy Disclosures: Building Trust Through Transparency" (Report), which urges mobile device application (app) platforms and developers to improve the privacy policies for their apps to better inform consumers about their privacy practices.  This report follows other recent publications from the FTC concerning mobile apps—including "Mobile Apps for Kids: Disclosures Still Not Making the Grade," released December 2012 (December 2012 Report), and "Mobile Apps for Kids: Current Privacy Disclosures are Disappointing," released February 2012 (February 2012 Report)—and the adoption of the amended Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) Rule on December 19, 2012.  (See " FTC Updates Rule for Children's Online Privacy Protection" for more information regarding the recent COPPA amendments.

Among other things, the Report offers recommendations to key stakeholders in the mobile device application marketplace, particularly operating system providers (e.g., Apple and Microsoft), application developers, advertising networks and related trade associations.  Such recommendations reflect the FTC's enforcement and policy experience with mobile applications and public comment on the matter; however, where the Report goes beyond existing legal requirements, "it is not intended to serve as a template for law enforcement actions or regulations under laws currently enforced by the FTC."  Nevertheless, such key stakeholders should take the FTC's recommendations into account when determining how they will collect, use and transfer personal information about consumers and preparing privacy policies to describe their information practices because they reflect the FTC's expectations under its consumer protection authorities.

At a minimum, operating system providers and application developers should review their existing privacy policies and make revisions, as necessary, to comply with the recommendations included within the Report.  However, all key stakeholders should consider the implications of recommendations specific to their industry segment, as summarized below.

Operating System Providers

Characterized within the Report as "gatekeepers to the app marketplace," the FTC states that operating system providers have the "greatest ability to effectuate change with respect to improving mobile privacy disclosures."  Operating system providers, which create and maintain the platform upon which mobile apps run, promulgate rules that app developers must follow in order to access the platform and facilitate interactions between developers and consumers.  Given their prominent role within the app marketplace, it is not surprising that the FTC directs numerous recommendations toward operating system providers, including:

  • Just-In-Time Disclosures.  The Report urges operating system providers to display just-in-time disclosures to consumers and obtain express, opt-in (rather than implied) consent before allowing apps to access sensitive information like geolocation (i.e., the real world physical location of a mobile device), and other information that consumers may find sensitive, such as contacts, photos, calendar entries or recorded audio or video.  Thus, operating system providers and mobile app developers should carefully consider the types of personal information practices that require an opt-in rather than mere use of the app to evidence consent.
  • Privacy Dashboard.  The Report suggests that operating system providers should consider developing a privacy "dashboard" that would centralize privacy settings for various apps to allow consumers to easily review the types of information accessed by the apps they have downloaded.  The "dashboard" model would enable consumers to determine which apps have access to different types of information about the consumer or the consumer's device and to revisit the choices they initially made about the apps.
  • Icons.  The Report notes that operating system providers currently use status icons for a variety of purposes, such as indicating when an app is accessing geolocation information.  The FTC suggests expansion of this practice to provide an icon that would indicate the transmission of personal information or other information more broadly.
  • Best Practices.  The Report recommends that operating system providers establish best practices for app developers.  For example, operating system providers can compel app developers to make privacy disclosures to consumers by restricting access to their platforms.
  • Review of Apps.  The Report suggests that operating system providers should also make clear disclosures to consumers about the extent to which they review apps developed for their platforms.  Such disclosures may include conditions for making apps available within the platform's app marketplace and efforts to ensure continued compliance.
  • Do Not Track Mechanism.  The Report directs operating system providers to consider offering a "Do Not Track" (DNT) mechanism, which would provide consumers with the option to prevent tracking by advertising networks or other third parties as they use apps on their mobile devices.  This approach allows consumers to make a single election, rather than case-by-case decisions for each app.

App Developers

Although some practices may be imposed upon app developers by operating system providers, as discussed above, app developers can take several steps to adopt the FTC's recommendations, including:

  • Privacy Policies.  The FTC encourages all app developers to have a privacy policy, and to include reference to such policy when submitting apps to an operating system provider.
  • Just-In-Time Disclosures.  As with the recommendations for operating system providers, the Report suggests that app developers provide just-in-time disclosures and obtain affirmative express consent before collecting and sharing sensitive information.
  • Coordination with Advertising Networks.  The FTC argues for improved coordination and communication between app developers and advertising networks and other third parties that provide certain functions, such as data analytics, to ensure app developers have an adequate understanding of the software they are incorporating into their apps and can accurately describe such software to consumers. 
  • Participation in Trade Associations.  The Report urges app developers to participate in trade associations and other industry organizations, particularly in the development of self-regulatory programs addressing privacy in mobile apps.

Advertising Networks and Other Third Parties

By specifically including advertising networks and other third parties in the Report, the FTC recognizes that cooperation with such networks and parties is necessary to achieve the recommendations outlined for operating system providers and app developers.  The recommendations for advertising networks and other third parties include:

  • Coordination with App Developers.  The Report calls upon advertising networks and other third parties to communicate with app developers to enable such developers to provide accurate disclosures to consumers.
  • DNT Mechanism.  Consistent with its recommendations for operating system providers, the FTC suggests that advertising networks and other third parties work with operating system providers to implement a DNT mechanism.

Trade Associations

The FTC states that trade associations can facilitate standardized privacy disclosures.  The Report makes the following recommendations for trade associations:

  • Icons.  Trade associations can work with operating system providers to develop standardized icons to indicate the transmission of personal information and other data.
  • Badges.  Similar to icons, the Report suggests that trade associations consider developing "badges" or other visual cues used to convey information about a particular app's data practices.
  • Privacy Policies.  Finally, the FTC suggests that trade associations are uniquely positioned to explore other opportunities to standardize privacy policies across the mobile app industry.

Children and Mobile Apps

Commenting on progress between the February 2012 Report and December 2012 Report, both of which relied on a survey of 400 mobile apps targeted at children, the FTC stated that "little or no progress has been made" in increasing transparency in the mobile app industry with regard to privacy practices specific to children.  The December 2012 Report suggests that very few mobile apps targeted to children include basic information about the app's privacy practices and interactive features, including the type of data collected, the purpose of the collection and whether third parties have access to such data:

  • Privacy Disclosures.  According to the December 2012 Report, approximately 20 percent of the mobile apps reviewed disclosed any privacy-related information prior to the download process and the same proportion provided access to a privacy disclosure after downloading the app.  Among those mobile apps, the December 2012 Report characterizes their disclosures as lengthy, difficult to read or lacking basic detail, such as the specific types of information collected.
  • Information Collection and Sharing Practices.  The December 2012 Report notes that 59 percent of the mobile apps transmitted some information to the app developer or to a third party.  Unique device identifiers were the most frequently transmitted data point, which the December 2012 Report cites as problematic, suggesting that such identifiers are routinely used to create user "profiles," which may track consumers across multiple mobile apps.
  • Disclosure Practices Regarding Interactive App Features.  The FTC reports that nearly half of the apps that stated they did not include advertising actually contained advertising, including ads targeted to a mature audience.  Similarly, the December 2012 Report notes that approximately 9 percent of the mobile apps reviewed disclosed that they linked with social media applications; however, this number represented only half of the mobile apps that actually linked to social media applications.  Mobile app developers using a template privacy policy as a starting point for an app's privacy policy should carefully tailor the template to reflect the developer's actual privacy practices for the app.

Increased Enforcement

In addition to the reports discussed above and the revisions to the COPPA Rule, effective July 1, 2013, the FTC has also increased enforcement efforts relating to mobile app privacy.  On February 1, 2013, the FTC announced an agreement with Path Inc., operator of the Path social networking mobile app, to settle allegations that it deceived consumers by collecting personal information from their mobile device address books without their knowledge or consent.  Under the terms of the agreement, Path Inc. must establish a comprehensive privacy program, obtain independent privacy assessments every other year for the next 20 years and pay $800,000 in civil penalties specifically relating to alleged violations of the COPPA Rule.  In announcing the agreement, the FTC commented on its commitment to continued scrutiny of privacy practices within the mobile app industry, adding that "no matter what new technologies emerge, the [FTC] will continue to safeguard the privacy of Americans."

Key Takeaways

App developers and other key stakeholders should consider the following next steps:

  • Review existing privacy policies to confirm they accurately describe current privacy practices for the particular app rather than merely following the developer's preferred template privacy policy
  • Where practical, update actual privacy practices and privacy policies to be more in line with the FTC's expectations for transparency and consumer choice, including use of opt-in rather than opt-out consent models
  • Revisit privacy practices in light of heightened FTC enforcement under COPPA and its other consumer protection authorities

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