Mobile tools and applications represent powerful technologies that will most certainly become more important in the years to come. Gartner Research has predicted that, by 2013, a greater number of people will be accessing the internet via mobile devices than via desktop computers.
With this move toward the small screen, consumers are becoming more aware of being tracked through mobile connectivity. The unique characteristics of the smartphone as a platform that's always on and connected -- providing access to real-world information like user location, habits, schedule, and lifestyle -- are creating a number of privacy challenges.
Given the sensitivity of the data that many consumers store on their phones, the demands are very high for manufacturers, marketers, carriers, app developers, ad networks, and all other mobile service providers to respect user privacy in order to earn and retain public trust. Making sure users feel that they are in control of sharing their data is important. After all, companies can't afford for consumers to perceive a lack of control over a device that is so intimate.
Considering how sophisticated mobile data has become, and how widely this data is being leveraged for business and commercial purposes, 2012 will be a critical period. The industry will face growing scrutiny around privacy concerns from the media, regulators, and governments.
Mobile privacy and the long arm of the law
Practices surrounding the disclosure of consumer data do not appear to have kept pace with the rapid developments in technology. Referencing a Future of Privacy Forum study from December 2011, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has stated that only about 30 percent of the top 10 paid mobile apps for three major mobile operating systems have legitimate privacy policies.
One can then only imagine how leaky the privacy hull within the free mobile app environment really is.
With the abundance of unregulated data available out there -- and with many terabytes more of it being generated daily -- phishers, spammers, and data-ravenous marketers have been having a picnic. And so this year, the industry is expecting to see a large amount of legal action around mobile privacy on a couple of fronts. These are danger areas where data users are running afoul of consumers, mainly in the realm of location-based data and privacy policies for mobile use by children.
Of these two sections, location-based services in particular have become a huge trend in mobile and have been an important part of the global discussion. The need for geo-based information to provide certain mobile services clashes very directly with desire and need for privacy.
For the time being, there is not yet a good set of universal rules for what can and can't be done with location-centered data to make advertising more effective, and this is precisely where companies that are overzealous about using this information are going to invite controversy.
How location data is being shared is something that still needs to be fully resolved. To begin with, business owners looking to keep from straying into regulatory cracks and gray areas should not sell or trade away this information. This is commonly done so that other companies can flesh-out a profile of where a user has been and what they have bought (and why) over time.
Fortunately, a framework for understanding the privacy rights and needs of mobile users is taking shape. In February 2012, talks at the Mobile World Congress in Spain highlighted the work being done by various sectors on addressing the challenges of mobile privacy, including the initiatives of the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA).
Now, the GSMA -- with the support of leading mobile operators in Europe and following consultation across the wider mobile ecosystem -- has published "Privacy Design Guidelines for Mobile Application Development." These new guidelines aim to provide users with better transparency, choice, and control over how apps use their personal information.
The guidelines, which are being implemented currently by a number of mobile operators in Europe for their own branded applications, are an important first step. But to effect real change, there will need to be close and lasting collaboration between industry giants and governments.
Policy makers in Washington, DC, are currently anticipating the release of two major mobile-oriented privacy documents within the next few months. It's expected that the White House will endorse a privacy model that would see leaders in the mobile arena come up with self-regulation procedures, after which the Federal Trade Commission will determine the adequacy (or inadequacy) of the new rules and then decide whether to approve and enforce them as if they were law.
Developments in mobile privacy
An obvious, but key challenge is how to give users simple device- and context-appropriate ways to manage their own data. Despite delays in establishing a ubiquitous, systemized framework for breeding privacy measures into the hand-held setting, some service providers have started taking their own initiatives toward data control.
Mozilla, for example, was the first major browser to provide its users with "Do Not Track" (DNT) features on both desktop and mobile. Firefox for Android provides users with the ability to send the DNT header to websites visited via the browser, as well as to any third parties trawling for information.
As of Feb. 26, 18 percent of users of Firefox for Android had turned on DNT. But even if all the other native browsers on mobile follow their lead, there's still an opportunity for applications installed in mobile devices that include services from third parties -- such as retailers and social media platforms -- to bypass the DNT header.
In order to maintain strong growth in both the sales and popularity of mobile apps, customers need to be confident that their privacy is protected when they use them. This is the responsibility of the entire mobile industry.
In the long run, it seems unlikely that people will tolerate a device that is in their pocket as being anything less than in their complete control. Thus, industry players must view mobility and privacy as interdependent concepts and do what they can to respect user privacy.
Wikus Engelbrecht is a marketing copywriter and journalist for GraphicMail.
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"Phone with key" image via Shutterstock.