FTC issues mobile privacy policy guidelines

The Federal Trade Commission has issued a set of guidelines in the hope of improving user privacy.

FTC-guidelines mobile platform developer app apple microsoft

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued a new set of guidelines in order to try and secure user privacy in a move that could affect companies including Apple and Microsoft.

The FTC's guidelines -- although currently non-binding -- are directed at firms that develop mobile platforms and applications. Published on Friday, the report includes a number of recommendations for mobile platform developers and providers, further highlighting the FTC's focus on trying to secure user privacy as more people in the U.S. turn to smartphones and tablets.

"The mobile world is expanding and innovating at breathtaking speed, allowing consumers to do things that would have been hard to imagine only a few years ago," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. "These best practices will help to safeguard consumer privacy and build trust in the mobile marketplace, ensuring that the market can continue to thrive."

Based on data gathered by trade associations, academic, privacy groups and the FTC's own experience with mobile privacy issues, the report recommends that consumers should have to actively consent before apps are allowed to access "sensitive" information such as geolocation, contacts, photos or media recordings. In addition, the FTC suggests that a "dashboard" could be put in place which would allow mobile users to see exactly what content is accessed by downloaded apps.

The agency asks mobile platform and app developers to consider implementing "Do Not Track" features, so third-parties including advertisers would not be able to track users as they switch between different apps. In addition, the report's guidelines suggest that apps should include easily accessible privacy policies.

In addition, the report asks for the creation of standardized app developer privacy policies and further education in privacy issues to protect consumers, with additional short-form privacy disclosures and self-regulatory bodies suggested as potential options.

According to the FTC, approximately 217 million smartphones were purchased in Q4 2012. It is not just adults purchasing these products that are to be protected, but children are also a spotlight issue for the FTC as mobile technology expands. Last year, the agency warned tech firms including Apple and Google that they have to do more to protect the data of minors, and on Friday the FTC said it fined Path $800,000 over allegations that the social networking app collected the data of children without parental consent.

However, it is not only tech giants such as Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft which should take note, as smaller firms who create apps for mobile devices may also find themselves in a future firing line unless these non-binding suggestions are taken into consideration. The guidelines are also aimed at advertising networks, analytics firms and trade associations.

"FTC staff strongly encourages companies in the mobile ecosystem to work expeditiously to implement the recommendations in this report. Doing so likely will result in enhancing the consumer trust that is so vital to companies operating in the mobile environment. Moving forward, as the mobile landscape evolves, the FTC will continue to closely monitor developments in this space and consider additional ways it can help businesses effectively provide privacy information to consumers,” the report concludes.