How New Legislation Could Give Smartphone Owners Control Over Their Privacy

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) is having a busy week fighting for stronger consumer protections. First he introduced legislation that would stop companies from using private arbitration to escape facing judgment in courts, and yesterday he introduced H.R. 1913, the Application Privacy, Protection and Security (Apps) Act of 2013, a bill that could fix the gap between the privacy consumers expect from apps on their mobile devices and the experience they actually receive. Rep. Johnson explained the bill during a speech to the State of the Mobile Net conference:

The APPS Act would require that app developers give effective notice about data collection and obtain consent from consumers before collecting personal data. Trust in the mobile marketplace is crucial to its continued growth. Transparency is the cornerstone of this trust.  The APPS act would also require that developers securely maintain personal data. And it would give consumers a clear way to permanently delete their personal data once they stop using an app.

Smartphones are a regular feature of modern life, with 114 million Americans using them as of July 2012, but developers for mobile apps have struggled to keep pace with consumer privacy expectations. A February Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report showed that 57 percent of all app users “have either uninstalled an app over concerns about having to share their personal information, or declined to install an app in the first place for similar reasons” and less than one in three “feel they are in control of their personal information on their mobile devices.”

And there is an awful lot of personal information on mobile devices that many apps can access — including contact lists, browsing habits, and geographic location. One 2012 study discovered 19 percent of Apple iOS 5 apps accessed address books without user knowledge or consent and 41 percent tracked location. It also found more than 40 percent of them didn’t encrypt user data once it was collected, potentially leaving it vulnerable to hackers.


A number of consumer advocates have praised the APPS Act, including experts from the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Consumer Federation of America, and Consumer Watchdog, Privacy Project Director at Consumer Watchdog. Susan Grant, Director of Consumer Protection at Consumer Federation of America calls it “a common-sense approach to an urgent problem,” saying the legislation will “give consumers the information and control they need to use apps with confidence.”