Some people seem resigned to the notion that their privacy will somehow be compromised when they’re online and/or using mobile devices. But not all people.
Last week, a consortium of attorneys in Austin, Texas, filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of 13 individuals against Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), LinkedIn (NYSE:LNKD), Yelp (NYSE:YELP), Facebook, Path, and 13 other technology, social networking, and gaming companies. The lawsuit claims that the companies supply mobile applications that are presented as video games, photo-sharing, or networking services but are actually designed to secretly capture and store private contact information, in violation of numerous state and federal laws.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, Western District of Texas, asks the court to stop and prevent the collection of consumers’ address-book data, to require that collected data be permanently purged, and for related damages for a class of iPhone, iPad, and iPod users as well as users of Google’s Android mobile devices whose private contact lists were taken and used without prior permission.
“Privacy is a fundamental American right,” the plaintiffs’ lead counsel, Jeff Edwards, said in a press release. “It does not take a back seat to technology or cease to exist whenever someone wishes to enjoy a video game or some other App on his or her wireless mobile phone.”
The growing backdrop of privacy issues
It’s not lost on the attorneys involved here that media coverage of privacy breaches – and potential security flaws – has been growing. Social network Path admitted in February to collecting and storing address books from iPhones without their owners’ authorization. Soon after, The Wall Street Journal reported that Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) used a coding workaround to track users of Apple’s Safari Web browser, which is favored by iPhone and other mobile users. The code took advantage of a known Safari flaw in a way that appeared to promote usage of the Google+ social network.
More recently, it was discovered that location-based apps automatically copied and stored iPhone photo libraries to app developers’ servers without user permission.
The discoveries prompted Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) to ask the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the firms’ enforcement of their privacy policies, and the FTC followed through last week with the launch of an investigation into whether Google has violated the terms of a settlement reached with the agency last year over Google’s privacy practices.
Another worry about apps is that they have in some cases been exploited for fraudulent activity. A recent New York Times story, for example, highlighted instances in which hackers breached Apple’s security system and routinely stole account information of customers at its iTunes Store and App Store. Even if the privacy practices of Google, Apple, Facebook, advertisers, and other corporate players were to somehow be addressed to everyone’s satisfaction, the potential for hacker fraud will never go away on the Web, and will become an even bigger issue in the mobile realm.