A group of industry lobbyists and privacy rights advocates voiced support Thursday for new voluntary guidelines for mobile apps that should make it easier for consumers to know what personal information is getting sucked from their smartphone or tablet and passed along to marketers.
The plan will likely provide a brief, easy-to-read snapshot of an app's privacy policies, similar to nutrition labels on food packages. The snapshot would give consumers the bottom line on what information the software collects, such as physical location, surfing habits and personal contacts, and how that data might be used or shared with other companies.
The new labels won't replace lengthy privacy policies that consumers rarely read anyway. And how widespread these labels become is up to industry. It could take several months for companies to test and implement the labels.
Still, the emerging consensus was considered a major step forward for privacy rights advocates who say consumers have been in the dark when it comes to the widespread collection of their personal data.
"For the first time many consumers will be able to do apples-to-apples comparisons" of different mobile apps' privacy policies, said Jules Polonetsky, director of the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington-based Internet privacy group.
Mobile applications like Google Maps, Angry Birds and GasBuddy have become popular, inexpensive ways to personalize smartphones or tablets and improve their functionality. Often free or a couple bucks to download, apps can turn a phone into a sophisticated roaming office or gaming console.
But like all those websites that offer medical advice or parenting tips, there's a hitch: They want information like your birth date or ZIP code, and often your location. Developers say data collection is necessary in many cases for the software to work as promised. The personal data also can be sold to marketers, making the app a lucrative reward to its creators.