Is the Federal Government Launching an Investigation Into Smartphone App Privacy?

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Pandora might not be the only company getting hit with subpoenas. If the Wall Street Journal is correct, a major shake-up could be involved, affecting hundreds of smartphone apps. Federal prosecutors are investigating whether these mobile apps are transmitting information about users without their proper consent and knowledge.

The heart of the issue is whether the information being collected by app makers violates computer-fraud law. Now, that sounds like a biggie. God knows the last time I actually paid attention to an app’s privacy policy.

We’ve mentioned previously that the whole ordeal might not just be limited to Pandora. The company says they were not a “specific target in the investigation.” They also were under the impression that similar subpoenas had been issued to other app publishers within the mobile industry.

The report goes on to say that the newspaper tested over 100 apps, and over half sent the phone’s unique identifier. Several less sent location, while about five sent personal information about the user. About 45 of those apps did not have privacy policies available. It hasn’t been said which kind of information would violate this computer-fraud law.

The Pandora iPhone and Android app, in particular, sends information about a user’s age, gender and location to advertisers. Pandora often collects this data when people register for the service.

The Journal’s sources say that Apple and Google have been asked for information regarding the developers and apps themselves. Given that each company is responsible for the iOS and Android platform, it’s definitely sending the signal that the government is willing to crack down and get down to business. They want to know.

Google, the Silicon Valley tech giant, themselves recently got the clamp from the FTC. The agency claimed that the company violated users’ privacy through its Google Buzz feature. It’s not the first time that Google and many others have been criticized for their privacy policies. In fact, realistically, the list would probably never end.

Legal experts say that the investigation would most likely not turn into a criminal investigation, but instead would become a civil one. There have been cases where users have filed privacy complaint against app makers in the past. In any case, the investigation favors consumers – people like you and me. Ever wonder where those targeted ads came from?

Unfortunately, most people tend to remain blissfully unaware and assume that their data is not being transmitted. The inquiry would prompt developers to be clearer about what kind of data they collect, while users would be (hopefully) more aware of what is happening behind the scenes.

Uncle Sam’s worried, guys.

(via Wall Street Journal)

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