FTC to mobile advertisers: Behave!

A new government report asks advertisers and app developers to "consider" a Do Not Track system

Topics: Privacy, online advertising, mobile advertising, FTC, smartphones, tracking, Do Not Track,

FTC to mobile advertisers: Behave!

I’d love to take credit for the fact that just two weeks after my story on how mobile online advertisers are compiling detailed profiles of us through our smartphone apps, the FTC has released a report stuffed with recommendations as to how mobile platform companies, app developers and advertisers can “improve mobile privacy disclosures.” But the truth is the FTC has been focused on the issue for years — and understandably so, since the cutting edge of privacy is now in our pockets.

First, more than other types of technology, mobile devices are typically personal to an individual, almost always on, and with the user. This can facilitate unprecedented amounts of data collection. The data collected can reveal sensitive information, such as communications with contacts, search queries about health conditions, political interests, and other affiliations, as well as other highly personal information. This data also may be shared with third parties, for example, to send consumers behaviorally targeted advertisements.

The more attention the FTC devotes to this, the better. But I’m not quite sure what to make of the FTC’s language. There’s a lot of “app developers should …” and “advertisers are encouraged …” and a heavy reliance on the word “consider.”

As in:

Consider offering a Do Not Track (DNT) mechanism for smartphone users. A mobile DNT mechanism, which a majority of the Commission has endorsed, would allow consumers to choose to prevent tracking by ad networks or other third parties as they navigate among apps on their phones.

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The FTC comes off as sounding vaguely schoolmarmish, as if lecturing on privacy etiquette, rather than forcefully protecting the public interest. That said, there is one moment when the FTC hints at a fist beneath the velvet glove.

To the extent that strong privacy codes are developed, the FTC will view adherence to such codes favorably in connection with its law enforcement work …

I hope that means that everybody better get on the Do Not Track bandwagon, or suffer the consequences when the hammer comes down. The privacy landscape would certainly be much more welcoming if all the recommendations in the report are followed.

But in the meantime, here’s one useful tidbit from the report that I embarrassingly wasn’t aware of. The most recent iteration of Apple’s mobile operating system iOS6 includes a setting that allows users to “Limit Ad Tracking.” iPhone owners can find the switch under Settings:About:Advertising.

The full (and interesting) back story can be found at Apple Insider but the gist is that the Limit Ad Tracking setting reduces the ability of advertisers to target you with ads that exploit a unique device identification number associated with your phone. Good to know.

Andrew Leonard
Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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