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04 February 2013, 12:52

FTC demands "Do Not Track" for mobile apps

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The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has made another contribution to the growing debate over the privacy of personal data on smartphones and tablet PCs. With a package of recommendations PDF, the US authority is urging mobile operating system and application developers to introduce more transparency in their products.

Users have a right to know what data is collected and what it is used for, said the FTC. Apps shouldn't be able to access GPS data or other personal information such as photos or contacts without the user's permission, it added. A year ago the Path social network created a stir by harvesting users' address book data without their permission; the FTC recently ordered Path to pay an $800,000 fine.

The commission also demands that platform developers implement "Do Not Track" (DNT) features that allow users to avoid being tracked for marketing purposes by advertising networks or other third parties for other reasons. The FTC has been demanding a similar feature for desktop browsers for some time and is now threatening to implement legal requirements. The authority said that although Apple's iOS and the mobile version of the Firefox browser already offer an appropriate switch, "Do Not Track" is far from being a standard feature in mobile devices. DNT also requires the communication partner on the other end of the connection to co-operate; users only state a preference by enabling the feature. Server operators are free to respect or dismiss this preference, and critics have therefore expressed their doubts about the usefulness of the switch.

With the guidelines it has now released, the FTC wants to emphasise that it is committed to ensuring the privacy of mobile device data. While the recommendations aren't binding for app developers and device manufacturers, any very obvious violations could result in being scrutinised by the trade commission. This could potentially lead to substantial fines such as those in the Path case.


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