The NTIA’s first multistakeholder meeting on mobile privacy focused on ways to improve the transparency of the privacy practices of mobile apps.

By Alice Cheng

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) held a public meeting in Washington, D.C., to discuss mobile privacy. After taking public comment in March on consumer data privacy, the NTIA decided to address mobile app transparency in its first privacy multistakeholder process. The discussion is part of the Obama administration’s push for companies to abide by a consumer privacy “bill of rights,” and is an issue that has been recently tackled by the Federal Communications Commission as well.

As smartphone use continues to grow rapidly, concerns about mobile app access to consumer data have also grown. Through the devices, mobile apps may be able to access sensitive personal information regarding users, such as geographic location. Additionally, privacy advocates have pushed fervently for regulation on digital advertising. The prevalence of digital advertising on apps is not only a nuisance, but can at times be downright aggressive (i.e., ads pushed onto

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notification bars and phone desktops).

During the meeting, audience members were asked how greater mobile app transparency could be achieved. Suggestions ranged from software that notified users of what information was shared, to the use of icons indicating privacy concepts in lieu of lengthy privacy policies. Others proposed that broader fair information practices should be addressed, as transparency itself would not be helpful without regulations.

While the NTIA’s next steps are unclear, keep in mind that privacy policies should still be as clear as possible. Effective privacy policies let users know how and for what purpose information is collected and used. Privacy lawyers and advocates generally recommend an opt-in approach is where possible, as it allows users to choose what information they would like to share.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is seeking for public comment on the privacy and security of personal information on mobile devices.

By Alice Cheng

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently released a request for public comment on the privacy and security of personal information on mobile devices. The Commission, which regulates interstate and international radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable communications, had solicited public input on this subject five years ago, but acknowledges the vast changes in technologies and business practices since then.

Section 222 of the Communications Act of 1934 addresses customer privacy, and establishes that all telecommunications carriers have the duty, with limited exceptions, to protect the confidentiality of proprietary information of and relating to customers. All carriers must also protect “customer proprietary network information” (CPNI), such as time, date, and duration of a call, which the carrier receives and obtains.  They may use, disclose, and allow access of such information only in limited circumstances.

The FCC enforces these obligations, and is seeking comments to better understand the practices of mobile wireless service providers, and the types of customer information that is stored on mobile devices.

This request for public comment appears to come in light of the Carrier IQ controversy of late 2011. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) brought legal action against analytics company Carrier IQ after it was discovered that the software, installed on over 140 million mobile devices, was capable of detailed logging of user keystrokes, recording of calls, storing text messages, tracking location, and more. The detailed tracking was intended to provide phone usage information that would be helpful to improve device performance. However, the widespread collection and difficulty in opting out attracted nationwide attention and a slew of lawsuits.

In addition to the request for public comments, the FCC has also recently released a report on location-based services (LBS), focusing on “mobile services that combine information about a user’s physical location with online connectivity.” While the report acknowledges the benefits of these services (ease of transacting business, for social networking purposes, etc.), they also address concerns of creating highly accurate and personal user profiles through LBS data—specifically, “how, when and by whom this information can and should be used.”

Congress has displayed a growing interest in privacy as well—several privacy and information security-related bills have been introduced and hearings on the issues have been held.

Five years after their initial inquiry into the matter, the FCC hopes to obtain an updated understanding of these mobile information security and privacy issues. Comments are due by July 13, and reply comments are due by July 30.