The Washington Post

App developers, privacy advocates work out suggestions for policy disclosure

Did you know which apps are looking at your contacts list? Your calendar? Your location? Even when apps provide information on what data they access, the notifications are often so cumbersome to read that users skip right over them.

To curb that problem, app developers and privacy advocates have collaborated to come up with ways to better display privacy policy information and cut through the long, legal liability documents.

The App Developers Alliance (ADA), Consumer Action, World Privacy Forum and American Civil Liberties Union will present mock-ups of screens that offer quick-scan information on what data app developers collect and that who else has access to that data. The groups will present their proposal Friday in Washington at a National Telecommunications and Information Administration meeting on app privacy and transparency.

Jon Potter, president of the App Developers Alliance, said that it’s in developers’ best interests to let people know what data the apps use.

“App developers have no interest in fighting with consumers,” Potter said. “We want them to be comfortable with using apps.”

The mocked-up screens don’t have comprehensive privacy information but do offer the highlights in a digestible way — with links to fuller information. The groups worked together to identify 12 basic data elements that carry the most weight with customers, such as whether an app gathers contact or biometric information and whether it shares that information with advertisers, data brokers or government entities.

“What we tried to do is come up with things that are intrinsically understandable to most people,” said ADA senior adviser Tim Sparapani.

The formats, which include a checklist and an “ingredient list” of data use and sharing, were also designed to be easy for developers to compile. The suggestions don’t offer ideas about how to change privacy policies, just how to display them.

Michelle De Mooey, a senior associate at Consumer Action, said that she hopes the proposals are a good starting point to design disclosure practices that suit privacy advocates, app developers and consumers.

“This is just a proposal, really the first proposal between these two sides,” she said. “It is going to be tweaked and changed but we wanted to hammer out the basic stuff.”

There hasn’t yet been formal discussion of including app platform providers, such as Apple, Google and Microsoft, to promote a simplified format. Potter and Sparapani said that the focus has been mostly on how to make changes on the developer level.

De Mooey said that she ultimately hopes app platforms will speak up on the issue, but that the focus right now is definitely on developers.

“A lot of people forget to talk to people who are making these,” she said.

The suggestions are the product of an NTIA process to get stakeholders to talk more deeply about mobile application transparency. The first meeting was held in July 2012. Friday’s meeting will begin at 1 p.m. and will be webcast.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.



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