Guest Blog – MEF Privacy Update

In this new regular feature, Simon Bates of MEF will discuss the issue of mobile privacy and the work currently being undertaken by MEF’s Privacy in Mobile Apps initiative, which is working with MEF members to build a robust and trusted mobile ecosystem for consumers and developers alike.

“There’s an irresistible market for our data but that doesn’t necessarily make us the product – it could make us traders.” David Mitchell
There is a lot of talk right now about privacy. The fall-out from the phone hacking scandals in the UK shone a spotlight on the ways tabloid journalists peer into celebrities’ private lives. But it’s not just celebs – we all have to watch what we put in the rubbish…

I guess it started when we found out ‘they’ were keeping copies of the embarrassing photos we posted on the internet, and wouldn’t necessarily hand them back if we asked them to. The internet taught that these photos – and people’s personal information in general – was valuable, maybe even more valuable than physical goods. Judicious use of raw data meant that ads could be better targeted, meaning better click-through and conversion rates.

The thing is ‘raw data’ isn’t like oil, gas or any other natural resource sitting there waiting to be exploited. It belongs to a human being. And it’s not like any other possession – it’s part of us. It’s our identity; a record of health or aptitude; a list of our friends; our habits and secrets; where and how we live our lives. All of this is – or at least used to be – considered private.

Legislators in Washington and Brussels cottoned on to this and scrambled to update laws around data protection. Some of the biggest beasts of the internet had their hands slapped and ordered to change the ways they collect and use consumers’ information.

With the explosion in mobile apps, these same lawmakers are turning their attention to the way companies make use of information garnered from mobile devices. The White House recently published a Privacy Bill of Rights outlining its best practice approach to consumer data use. The California Attorney General has said she will enforce California’s Online Privacy Protection Act against app developers who must now have a privacy policy.

Amid the hyperbole and outcry, it’s important to remember there’s nothing wrong with harnessing personal information. It means consumers see ads for products they want at a price they’re happy to pay. In mobile, it often means the price for an app is heavily discounted.

Commerce has always been about mutually beneficial exchange. I give you a product and in return you hand over something of value to me. So I see nothing wrong with offering an app in return for the user’s information and usage habits. The trick is to make sure that the exchange, like any other commercial activity, is above board: transparent and fair to both parties.

And this cuts to the heart of the issue. Too often, consumers are totally in the dark about the way companies are making use of their data. They probably wouldn’t mind if it was explained to them – that they’re receiving an excellent app at a knock-down price in return for limited access to information on how they live their lives. The problem is this is rarely made clear. When they find out, consumers consequently feel cheated and, worse, that their privacy has been trampled upon.

It’s essential that the mobile app community demonstrates its commitment to using data responsibly. If it doesn’t – if regulators lose confidence in our efforts to act in the consumer’s interest – there may be strident new rules backed up by tough sanctions. These rules may or may not have the desired effect and they may put unnecessary burdens on app developers and stores.

My name is Simon Bates and I manage MEF’s Privacy in Mobile Apps initiative. MEF is leading the mobile industry’s response to this challenge and to help the industry build a robust and trusted ecosystem for consumers and developers alike.

I’ll sign off for now with another quote from David Mitchell’s excellent article on privacy. Watch this space for news on the exciting work we’re doing in this area.

“Corporations shouldn’t extort information secretly but neither can consumers withhold it at all costs. The parasitism of corporations snooping on us could become a symbiosis, in which information is freely surrendered in exchange for something concrete: say…adverts that are actually useful because they offer things we want to buy and ways of doing so more cheaply.”


  1. […] previous posts I’ve stressed the need for app developers to think hard about their use of personal […]

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