Apple Lets Mobile Trackers Have a Field Day, Alleges Consumer Lawsuit

Tue, Dec 28, 2010 at 11:25 am

    Apple is in the sights of privacy advocates concerned over the lack of controls to prevent abuses in the mobile world. “At least in the wired or online world, the consumer has some kind of privacy policy on which to rely… [that] will give some kind of idea of what is happening with your information,” said consumer advocate John Simpson, “but in the mobile environment, there is zero transparency.”

    Apple and several app creators have been passing along mobile device users’ personal information to advertisers without their permission or knowledge, alleges Jonathan Lalo of Los Angeles in a lawsuit filed in Northern California’s federal district court. App creators named in the suit include Pandora,, Toss It, Text4Plus, The Weather Channel, Talking Tom Cat, and Pimple Popper Lite.

    The tracking is done via a Unique Device Identifier that is special to each device. Using the UDID, advertisers can tell which apps have been downloaded to which devices, as well as which ads have been viewed. The suit claims that using UDIDs or geolocation information to send personal data to advertisers violates computer and business fraud laws.

    Apple is culpable because it is aware of the devices’ ability to transmit this data, claims the plaintiff, who is seeking class-action status for the suit.

    MacNewsWorld was unable to reach Apple immediately for comment.

    ‘Do Not Track’ for Mobile Too

    The Wall Street Journal highlighted this issue earlier this month in an article that raised eyebrows among consumers and privacy advocates, and apparently was the driver behind this lawsuit.

    “It is clear that we need some kind of ‘do not track’ legislation for smartphones as well as online,” John M. Simpson, a consumer advocate with Consumer Watchdog, told MacNewsWorld.

    This transmission of information was described as common in the Journal article, he noted — and consumers have no recourse.

    “At least in the wired or online world, the consumer has some kind of privacy policy on which to rely,” said Simpson. “If he or she wants to wade through it, at least it will give some kind of idea of what is happening with your information — but in the mobile environment, there is zero transparency.”

    Not surprisingly, Simpson said it’s “great” a consumer has filed suit, and he expects to see more. “Something has to be done to hold these companies accountable.”

    Privacy Is an Illusion

    Despite the uproar caused by the Journal article, it is surprising that a consumer would assume there were privacy safeguards associated with mobile apps, Rob Walch, host of Today in iPhone, told MacNewsWorld.

    “It is a free third-party app so — regardless of the manufacturer — why would any company provide it for free if they weren’t getting something in return?” he asked. “Of course information is getting passed along.”

    For the most part, though, it’s unlikely there have been widespread egregious violations of privacy — such as the passing along of email addresses or bank passwords, in Walch’s view.

    The information that is being transmitted is no doubt more benign — largely designed to help advertisers tailor their ads, he said. “There is great value for an advertiser to know if someone is in, say, Kansas City, and likes football.”

    Apple’s “walled garden” approach to the Internet will be of help here, added Walch. Unlike Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), Apple has a mechanism in place to yank apps that violate its rules.

    “Sooner or later, someone is going to break the rules and pass along information that they shouldn’t if they haven’t already,” he acknowledged. “At least Apple has the means to stop it when it is brought to its attention.”

    The Do-Not-Track Specter

    It is not clear such fine distinctions will resonate with consumers — or the government. There has been heightened interest in this issue on Capitol Hill and in Washington. Earlier this month, hearings were held on the pros and cons of Do Not Track legislation.

    The Federal Trade Commission recently released a report outlining how such a plan could be implemented. Essentially the agency called for any company collecting data about consumers online to promote privacy throughout their organizations — as well as inform people when data is being collected.

    For the most part, the focus has been online activities, but as news of mobile practices continues to make headlines, Washington’s attention could expand to include smartphones, said Consumer Watchdog’s Simpson.

    “This is an issue that everyone can understand and that impacts anyone who carries a smartphone,” he noted.

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