Apple, Google and other mobile platform providers will present privacy policies for all the apps offered in their stores as part of an agreement with the state of California.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced an agreement developed with mobile platform companies including Apple, Google, Research In Motion, Amazon, HP and Microsoft, to ensure that all mobile apps will offer privacy policies that users can read before downloading the app.
Although the plan technically only applies to apps in use in California, it will affect the global marketplace by making privacy policies visible to all users who download apps through the Android Marketplace, the App Store or any of the other platforms hosted by the participating companies.
"There's been a question," Harris said, and "we have resolved that." Harris added that developers should be "on notice" that the state was prepared to enforce the newly clarified law, effective immediately, against both developers and platform providers that fail to comply.
"We take a great deal of pride in the technology that was born in our backyard," Harris said. "There's no desire on any of our parts to slow down what's potentially life-changing and world-changing technology. But we also shouldn't have to accept false choices" between privacy and access to innovation.
In a statement, Jules Polonetsky, director of the Future of Privacy Forum, agreed. "Apps can only provide innovative services to consumers if they use personal information responsibly," Polonetsky wrote. If they surprise consumers, he said, "they risk losing access to user data. The California agreement will ensure that consumers are protected and that the app environment continues to flourish."
The policy is, in some ways, symbolic. It will not limit what apps can grab from smartphones, which can include device ID numbers, email addresses, location, personal contacts and calendar entries. It simply requires apps to inform consumers, who, in fact, may not read such notices. Several privacy advocates and experts agreed that full resolution of the mobile privacy issue will have to include buy-in from platform operators and app developers, consumer education and potentially regulation.
The attorney general's announcement comes amid privacy controversies involving the social networking app Path, which is based in San Francisco, and Google, which was discovered by a Stanford graduate student to be tracking users' browser habits on the iPhone despite Safari's no-tracking default settings. Talks with the platform companies began in August of last year.
Asked how her office came to focus on mobile privacy, Harris said, "We all use apps." California also has "very tough rules against invasion of privacy," she said, "and those protections apply not only to intrusions by government but also by corporations."
Harris twice declined to comment on her office's position on Google's iPhone tracking.