Lawsuits will pressure Apple and Google to protect user privacy

By Kevin Kelleher
December 28, 2010

On December 17, the Wall Street Journal published an investigative story that detailed how popular iPhone and Android apps like Pandora, The Weather Channel and Angry Birds breach user privacy. Less than a week later, the first lawsuits were filed.

So far, two suits seeking class action status have been filed, pushing for a ban on the sharing by apps of personal data like geo-location and phone numbers with advertisers. They also seek monetary compensation. The defendants include the developers of the apps in question as well as Apple. Google, which developed the Android platform, may face similar suits.

Smartphone owners who are concerned about advertisers receiving personal data without their consent may be encouraged if these lawsuits lead to stronger protection. But for Apple and Google they complicate matters. There is a fundamental tension between making mobile ads a valuable platform for advertisers and respecting the privacy of mobile device users. It’s going to take a long time to untangle the whole mess, and the lawsuits apply pressure to find a quick solution.

Google and Apple are pushing out new mobile advertising networks that, in theory at least, can use everything from a consumer’s location to search and buying history to the shopping preferences of friends in order to deliver ads that consumers might actually want to click on. It’s been a dream of online advertisers ever since the first web browser cookie was served.

But reports like that in the Journal remind users how much data is being gathered on them, and the reminder makes people gun-shy about sharing data or even using questionable apps. I haven’t used Pandora since finding out just what data it was sharing on me, and I doubt I’m alone.

Regulators are also considering how to balance the demand for private information with the growth of the mobile advertising market. Many of those regulators are inclined to let the private companies find solutions that try to balance all interests. But high-profile lawsuits can force their hand, or allow the courts to set parameters that influence privacy regulations.

The recent class-action lawsuits send a message that many consumers have been trying to convey to Apple and Google for years – to have a simple and effective way to control which data they share with advertisers. If those companies can’t decide quickly enough how to solve that riddle, it will be solved for them soon enough.

One comment

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First, some of the information the suit claims that has been shared (sexual preference, Income for example) had to be given to the apps as they are not collected any other way. You can’t give the application your info and then claim to be surprised that the application has or uses the ifo.

That said, I am surprised by this (the revelations of late), as Apple in particular makes a point of not sharing user data, and their developer agreements will get you shut down hard if you do it for them.

However, if the suit is successful, sign me up to sue microsoft for all the spyware that other programmers developed With Windows spyware and viruses at over 2.5 million last count – that would be one heck of a lawsuit…)

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[...] Hopefully this prediction will come true (though I’m slightly skeptic), but “lawsuits will pressure Apple and Google to protect user privacy” – and basically give us control over what information gets shared with advertisers [Reuters] [...]