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The Walled Garden of Mobile Technology: Keeping Personal Data Private on Mobile Devices

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It's commonly said that today's smartphones contain more computing power than the rocket that carried the pioneering Apollo 11 astronauts into space over 40 years ago. In today's age that computing power doesn't translate into personal space travel - but it does provide for enormous connectivity. And in today's data-driven economy, expansive connectivity means expansive collection and use of consumer information.

Our phones and tablets share data with their manufacturers and our mobile service providers as a matter of course. Apps collect data for the use of the developer as well as "data aggregators," third-party information gatherers that look to use this information as you bounce from app to app to better target you for advertising offers. And because these devices are by definition mobile, the accurate collection and effective use of location information is a kind of Holy Grail for advertisers.

When it comes to controlling how this data is shared and used, there is good news and there is bad news. In an attempt to properly set the stage, let's take the bad news first.

After years of trial and error, the online marketing industry began to take real steps toward legitimate consumer protections in order to comply with the EU ePrivacy Directive and the work on the upcoming General Data Protection Regulation. While the world of tracking in traditional, terrestrial browsers still has room to improve, the standards create a navigable landscape of more clear expectations and more meaningful choices for consumers. The world of mobile data collection has not yet reached those milestones of standardisation. Apps can all have their own policies, which may differ between mobile operating systems. And the partners they employ for data collection services may have their own set of privacy policies, all of which are difficult to find and review. Even when informed, the mechanisms for opting-out of this tracking generally mean buying a more expensive version of the application or simply choosing not to use the app at all.

The biggest winners in the mobile explosion, of course, are Apple and Google, whose operating systems (and in the case of Apple, actual devices) have emerged as market leaders. Recent estimates suggest that as much as 90% of the mobile devices in use today are powered by Google's Android or Apple iOS. This creates an environment that analysts sometimes call a "walled garden" - an entire ecosystem behind high barriers that follows its own rules, regardless of its surroundings outside its perimeter. For advocates and regulators this is a thorny issue. Innovative companies who understand the value of data (a category into which Apple and Google squarely fit) understandably work to protect and aggressively monetise their user information. The question of protection is similar to that of an individual app. Because consumers can only choose to use a different smartphone (or none at all), mobile companies push the limits on data use and preach abstinence to those concerned about information gathering practices. Much about the future of the mobile privacy debate will depend on the willingness of these two companies to participate in discussions about consumer protections.

Fortunately, that represents a bit of the good news, as well.

The landscape for in-browser marketing is notoriously complex, with every conceivable niche filled by highly specialised technologies. The mobile landscape is much less crowded, and even new mobile-specific ad networks and data aggregation companies can take advantage of the progress made on the privacy front over the last few years. This is the most encouraging point of good news - the consumer data discussion is well-documented, the goals of advocates are codified, and more meaningful conversations with a much more concise set of companies should be possible. The mobile tracking universe shouldn't require a decade of experimentation before privacy comes to front-of-mind.

In the short term, the best thing a consumer can do is to stay aware, and get vocal. If you choose not to use an app based on its privacy policy, leave a review and say so. When you have opportunities to leave feedback for your phone manufacturer or mobile service provider, mention that you'd like more clear disclosure of data collection. Regulators will pressure these companies and advocates will make noise, but the most influential voice in such a competitive industry is that of the customer. If meaningful choice about data collection is an issue for us, it will be an issue for them, as well.