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Forget About the House Burglars, It's the Data Lifters You Should Be Worried About

Posted: 09/05/2012 16:13

Shortly after the birth of my son nine years ago my house was burgled. Whether it was New-Baby-Fatigue or something else, a window was probably left open and I awoke to my wife's lamentations and a defiled house.

They didn't get away with much. They missed a Mont Blanc pen as well as our passwords that were on the kitchen table being prepared for a visa and they stole my headphones bag... not the headphones.

But the laptops went and so did our mobile phones as well as cash and credit cards. The police came and went, as insouciant about the burglary as we were about leaving the window open, but the rest of the experience was a nightmare.

The burglars may have been as thick as the proverbial plank, but they knew how to play the system. They used our credit cards for micropayments such as topping up their own mobile phones, always spending less than £10, and it took many weeks to sort out. In time everything was replaced and they never came back.

While this experience was upsetting, if it happened today things would be much worse. We carry so much data on our phones, whether it's our social network apps or purchases we've made, it is literally an open house for criminals to pillage.

But while this theft of our content by house burglars is upsetting it is only ephemeral. What we should be more worried about is the persistent theft of our data by companies that profess to be our friends. Watch out for the data lifters.

The list keeps getting longer. In February mobile social app Path was exposed for indexing users' phone books and contact details, a practice that also implicates Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Foursquare through their APIs.

A month later it was the (very) creepy Girls Around Me that was kicked out of the Apple App Store for using (very) publicly available profiles on Facebook and Foursquare to locate girls nearby. Then in April there was the Smurfs Kids app where a US District Judge upheld complaints that the app was tricking children into making in-app purchases.

As the use of smartphones proliferates and these phones become even smarter it is key to the future of the sector, and our freedoms and security, that individuals are protected from the data lifters.

So the recent announcement from global trade association MEF is to be greatly welcomed.

Its Privacy In Mobile Applications initiative will 'help the global mobile industry build consumer trust when interacting with mobile apps that collect user data'. It will seek to establish best practices and provide practical tools built on the consumer's informed consent as well as develop a robust rating system for mobile applications for app stores, market places and consumers.

MEF Global Chairman, Andrew Bud is passionate about protecting privacy and ensuring the mobile industry regulates itself.

"There need to be commonly accepted ways of communicating privacy to consumers in a meaningful yet simple way, and commonly agreed ways for privacy preferences to be shared between industry players, so that consumers' choices don't fall down the cracks.

"These are tough challenges in a world of four-inch screens, amazing technological opportunities and a thousand-company ecosystem. But without that sort of co-ordination, regulators will become increasingly frustrated at the industry's inability to deliver what everyone wants," he said.

The idea of overly zealous regulation is anathema to all companies in the mobile industry so MEF's move to harness its members is an attempt to cut off the data lifters at the pass.

Unlike the window in my burgled house that was probably left open, the MEF has been fleet to bolt down any weak link in the mobile house. Whether the data lifters will show the same disrespect as house burglars remains to be seen.

Even so, it's a step in the right direction, a very strong step in the right direction.

 

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