App makers flout privacy laws, federal investigation underway

Apple and Google are being asked to provide information on app makers as part of a federal clamp down on consumer’s personal information being shared without their knowledge.

Federal prosecutors in New Jersey are investigating a number of app makers for devices such as the iPhone to stop the gathering of information such as age, gender and location without the user being fully aware of what information is being taken and what will be done with it.

Pandora Media is one of the firms that a source close to WSJ has revealed as being under investigation, with the company acknowledging that it is part of an investigation, though a wide reaching one on an “industry-wide basis to the publishers of numerous other smartphone applications”.

Another app producer, Anthony Campitit of Pumpkin Maker also said that he had received contact from authorites on the subject, though said that “they’re just doing information-gathering to get a better understanding” of the industry.

“We’re not doing anything wrong and neither is anyone else doing anything wrong,” he said.

Apple and Google, which both distribute apps through their online stores, have apparently been asked to provide information on apps sold via their services, though no comment was available from either.

It will be interesting to see how much help Google is willing to give considering its own history of appropriating customer’s information without them knowing.

A test cited by the WSJ showed that of 101 apps looked at, 56 transmitted the phone’s unique device identifier to other companies without the knowledge of the user, with five percent sending further personal details such as age.

Pandora is thought to be one such firm which transmitted all of this information, through both the Google and Apple version of its apps, after it had been gathered at registration, meaning that it could be in contravention of the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

It is thought that the probe into the use of such information could potentially lead to criminal charges – as it could be argued that the app makers essentially hacked into user’s cell phones, according to legal experts. We haven’t tried the News of the World app yet, if there is such a thing.

What appears to be a more likely outcome than prosecution would be certain concessions from firms deemed to be involved, with guarantees of ceasing to act in this sneaky fashion likely to placate judges.

It is also thought that users themselves could take up civil cases against app makers which are flouting privacy laws, alongside complaints from the Federal Trade Commission.

“Hopefully this will bring about a big change in the industry and make companies be more responsible in what data is being collected,” said Ginger McCall, an assistant director at privacy advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center.