Commerce Department’s first-ever privacy meeting underwhelms


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Hundreds of the privacy-aware population showed at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA)  first-ever public meeting on mobile privacy last week.  The meeting highlighted that we have a long way to go, and that there’s a great need to move conversation into action.

The NTIA, part of the Department of Commerce, is the Executive Branch agency advising the President on telecommunications and information policy issues.  It announced a series of multistakeholder privacy meetings in response to the Obama Administration’s February 2012 privacy framework, which suggested a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights and called for an open process where privacy advocates, businesses, academics, and the public at large could talk about the issues that matter most.

Approximately 250 attendees filled an auditorium in the Commerce Department building in Washington DC, speaking in minute-long bursts on four microphones around the room.  A moderator, whose previous work included managing large ICANN meetings, facilitated the sometimes frustrated speakers. 

The topic of the day was “mobile application transparency.”  What is transparency?  It’s the idea that you, the consumer, should be able to see how and why apps are collecting, using, and sharing your data.  It’s the right to see a privacy policy, especially one that makes sense for where you are (like a massive policy on a tiny cell phone screen doesn’t make much sense).

Many privacy advocates, including the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and the ACLU, took issue with the NTIA’s limited focus on transparency.  Transparency and openness are key, they said, but they’re just one piece of the privacy puzzle.  Although transparency is essential for informed decisions about which apps to use and which companies to trust, just because the information is available doesn’t mean you’ll read it.  Can you imagine reading every privacy policy you ever encounter?  It would take about 30 work days out of your year.  Clearly there’s a disconnect between how privacy policies are written and how real people function that runs deeper than transparency.

Some of the topics on the board at the meeting.

For more on yesterday’s meeting, check out our photo gallery and a Storify summary of the tweets happening during the event.

Our position

Like everyone else, we agree that transparency is a good thing.  You need to know how companies and apps are using your personal information.  If you’re trading your data to use “free” services like Facebook, you should be able to understand the full nature of that trade.

We think consumers need more control over their mobile privacy, not 6 months from now, but right now.  Your phone is your most personal computer:  it’s more powerful than most of the computers you’ve ever owned, and it goes with you everywhere.  Massachusetts judge Robert Cosgrove recently stated in Commonwealth v. Pitt that a phone is “a GPS tracking device that provides a window into the most private dimensions of [our] lives.”

Given how powerful and personal your phone is, it’s unfortunate that mobile platforms are restricted and don’t give consumers the choice or the ability to control their privacy.  This is why we can’t yet offer Do Not Track Plus for mobile, even though people ask us for it all the time.

We commend the White House and the FTC for paying attention to privacy, something that’s really important to many Americans, and it’s great that the NTIA is working to build the best system they can for improving your privacy rights.  We wanted to see more action come from this opportunity.  It’s not often that so many influential people in the privacy world get together in one place to address a critical issue like mobile app privacy, and it would have been nice to come away with more progress.  With that said, we’re optimistic that this meeting series will be a catalyst for creating change over time.

How do you feel about your privacy on your mobile devices?  Are you more or less worried about it than you are about your laptop or desktop?  What would you like to see happen to feel more protected?

2 Replies to “Commerce Department’s first-ever privacy meeting underwhelms”

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