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Apple sued over transmission of personal information by mobile apps

Credit WJS blog

Last week on December 23rd, a lawsuit was filed against Apple for allowing the transfer of personal information through third party iPhone and iPad applications to advertising networks without the consent of the owners of the mobile devices. The complaint was filed by a Jonathan Lalo in a San Jose, California federal court according to reports from Bloomberg.

According to Mr. Lalo’s lawsuit, Apple’s mobile devices are equipped with “identifying devices” that allow advertising networks to track how users use available applications on their devices, which applications, and for how long. The lawsuit further claims that:

“Some apps are also selling additional information to ad networks, including users’ location, age, gender, income, ethnicity, sexual orientation and political views”.

Earlier in the month, the Wall Street Journal had also released reports relaying the prevalence of the information some applications are tracking and transmitting about their users. The WSJ had tested 101 applications for the occurrence of information tracking and transmission. What quickly became concerning was how many of the top, most popular apps fall into this category. (For a more detailed breakdown of the apps in question, see the WSJ blog.)

Tracking of information is made possible by the unique identifier found in all devices. For Apple, the identifier is the UDID, which cannot be blocked, changed, or deleted like a cookie on your computer can be. In the case of a missing iPhone or iPad, the number can be useful for tracing purposes, but in the event of the transmission of user behavior patterns and personal information, the UDID is the reason applications are able to track the information that in some cases will be shared with advertising networks.

The lawsuit filed by Mr. Lalo is significant, as it’s the first of its kind, and the outcome may change the way manufacturers must manage and handle the approval and collaboration of third party applications on their devices. Apple’s reaction to the recent reports of app information transmission has been that all apps must include a prompt for user consent for the tracking and transmission of user behavior and personal information, or the app will be rejected. They did not provide commentary around why WSJ was able to find apps that did not meet this requirement.

My own opinion around this is that I do feel manufacturers and application developers should take greater responsibility for the access and sharing of personal information provided in trust by their customers. However, I also think that we are on the cusp of revolutionary changes in public perspective around personal information privacy and government information privacy laws. Social content, its uses, and adoption rates are changing at a pace that makes it very difficult for laws to keep up. My sense is that ours may be the last generation that feels the need to protect personal privacy. Future generations are, and will continue to be increasingly comfortable sharing personal information with others with or without their consent.

That said, I’ll be very interested in seeing how Mr. Lalo’s lawsuit pans out over the next few months. I’m also interested in your thoughts. What do you think about the lawsuit? Do you think Jonathan has a case?

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