Oh, the Places You’ll Go!  Mobile Privacy Developments and Paths for Companies

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. But mobile companies should pick their direction with care, considering the words of the FTC Chair! (Apologies to Dr. Seuss)

Last Thursday, at the IAPP Global Privacy Summit, the new FTC Chair Edith Ramirez identified mobile privacy as one of her top policy and enforcement priorities. Her statement is the most recent tacit acknowledgement that multiple federal and state government agencies are talking—seriously—about mobile privacy policy issues and have been for more than a year.

From a practical standpoint, what has happened, what should consumers expect in the future and how will these activities affect the mobile marketplace?

The most common theme has been transparency: How do consumers know what is happening to their personal information when they use a mobile device (and more specifically, mobile applications)? For example, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)—part of the Department of Commerce—is the ringleader in a multi-stakeholder process with players throughout the mobile ecosystem, a process that hopes to find consensus on what mobile apps should convey about how they are using consumer information. There is great debate over how apps should convey this information—icons only, text only, layered privacy notices—but the NTIA hopes to have final recommendations this spring.

About a year ago, California Attorney General Kamala Harris started this swell of mobile privacy activity.  First she released a self-regulatory agreement with mobile platform providers, such as Apple and Google. Then she followed up with recommendations for mobile app developers and other mobile players.

The FTC recently entered the transparency debate too, releasing a set of best practice recommendations—Mobile Privacy Disclosures: Building Trust through Transparency—targeted at platforms, app developers and third parties (such as ad networks and analytics companies). They’ve hammered their mobile point home with a set of new consent decrees in the mobile space and just released a how-to privacy by design video for mobile app developers. The best practice recommendations also contain signs of things to come; the FTC foreshadowed that it would consider the NTIA’s yet-to-be determined standards to be a de facto safe harbor for mobile apps.

Now we just need to know what those standards are!

To complicate matters further, other sector-specific regulators may also try to get in on the regulatory or policy action as more regulated industries enter the mobile space (such as financial services, healthcare, utilities). It could become a mess—or more of a mess—with conflicting guidance and standards.

So, what should a company do, given all this chaos? Here are few themes and considerations that stand out:

  • Real-time geolocation is the holy grail/hot button: Every business thinks that knowing the real-time geolocation of consumers’ mobile devices will help it sell its products—and that means using everything from identifying places where more application downloads occur, to targeting advertisements from nearby brick-and-mortar stores. Real-time geolocation, of course, has to be provided to the mobile carrier to deliver the telecommunications services. However, in every policy discussion, and even in the FTC’s revised COPPA regulations, precise geolocation—city and street—is considered sensitive information and is recommended to be used by non-carriers in the mobile ecosystem only with affirmative consent.

Consider seriously whether real-time geolocation is integral to your business model; if so, building in affirmative consent is a very good idea. 

  • The ubiquity and size of mobile devices may thwart the ability to effectively convey privacy settings: The screen size makes text-laden notices burdensome, while icons may be too simplistic. Similarly, this week, the FTC updated its .com Disclosures: How To Make Effective Disclosures in Digital Advertising guidance on online advertising, explicitly detailing how mobile devices make material disclosures for advertising particularly difficult, and that companies should consider the device when crafting the conspicuousness of any disclosures.

Consider a modified approach to convey your privacy practices, including layering your privacy policy to most effectively notify the user, preferably before the download or activity occurs. Most importantly, make sure you have some sort of accurate privacy policy that’s easily accessible from a mobile device.

  • Know what is happening in your application: A lot of policy attention has been placed on what third-party code and plug-ins are being used in applications. This is an issue for both paid apps and free apps, as some free apps will utilize third-party support services that support other apps. Some regulators have expressed concern that consumers are not receiving enough information about when and how their personal information is being used by third parties. Both the California AG and the FTC want those relationships clearly disclosed—and to possibly seek to limit cross-application use of data.

Although much of the attention thus far has been on transparency, we should expect to see the "next generation" of enforcement actions focusing on deception activity—whether the apps are actually doing what they say and living up to the disclosed promises. Accordingly, document what occurs in your applications and mobile activities. 

The mobile marketplace is evolving, but one thing is certain: When enforcement agencies make “recommendations,” companies that fail to heed them may no longer “stay with the pack” and thus may be subject to investigations and enforcement actions. Some of the recommendations may affect new entrants, particularly free/inexpensive applications on mobile devices, as mobile devices become more ubiquitous and individuals’ reliance on the devices grows. There will be tension between effectively telling consumers what is happening on their devices in a digestible and understandable way and not excessively burdening the review and acceptance process.

This continues to be an embryonic area of law, but follow the evolution to make certain you do not venture into Seussian uncharted territory!

Written By

Mary Ellen Callahan, CIPP/US


If you want to comment on this post, you need to login.


Board of Directors

See the esteemed group of leaders shaping the future of the IAPP.

Contact Us

Need someone to talk to? We’re here for you.

IAPP Staff

Looking for someone specific? Visit the staff directory.

Learn more about the IAPP»

Daily Dashboard

The day’s top stories from around the world

Privacy Perspectives

Where the real conversations in privacy happen

The Privacy Advisor

Original reporting and feature articles on the latest privacy developments

Privacy Tracker

Alerts and legal analysis of legislative trends

Privacy Tech

Exploring the technology of privacy

Canada Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top Canadian privacy news

Europe Data Protection Digest

A roundup of the top European data protection news

Asia-Pacific Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top privacy news from the Asia-Pacific region

Latin America Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top privacy news from Latin America

IAPP Westin Research Center

Original works. Groundbreaking research. Emerging scholars.

Get more News »

IAPP Communities

Meet locally with privacy pros, dive deep into specialized topics or connect over common interests. Find your Community in KnowledgeNet Chapters, Sections and Affinity Groups.

IAPP Job Board

Looking for a new challenge, or need to hire your next privacy pro? The IAPP Job Board is the answer.

Join the Privacy List

Have ideas? Need advice? Subscribe to the Privacy List. It’s crowdsourcing, with an exceptional crowd.

Find a KnowledgeNet Chapter Near You

Talk privacy and network with local members at IAPP KnowledgeNet Chapter meetings, taking place worldwide.

Find more ways to Connect »

Find a Privacy Training Class

Two-day privacy training classes are held around the world. See the complete schedule now.

The Privacy Core™ Library Has Evolved

Privacy Core™ e-learning essentials just expanded to include seven new units for marketers. Keep your data safe and your staff in the know!

Online Privacy Training

Build your knowledge. The privacy know-how you need is just a click away.

Upcoming Web Conferences

See our list of upcoming web conferences. Just log on, listen in and learn!

Train Your Team

Get your team up to speed on privacy by bringing IAPP training to your organization.

Let’s Get You DPO Ready

There’s no better time to train than right now! We have all the resources you need to meet the challenges of the GDPR.

Learn more »

CIPP Certification

The global standard for the go-to person for privacy laws, regulations and frameworks

CIPM Certification

The first and only privacy certification for professionals who manage day-to-day operations

CIPT Certification

The industry benchmark for IT professionals worldwide to validate their knowledge of privacy requirements

FIP Designation

Recognizing the advanced knowledge and issue-spotting skills a privacy pro must attain in today’s complex world of data privacy.

Certify Your Staff

Find out how you can bring the world’s only globally recognized privacy certification to a group in your organization.


The IAPP’S CIPP/E and CIPM are the ANSI/ISO-accredited, industry-recognized combination for DPO readiness. Learn more today.

Learn more about IAPP certification »

Are You Ready for the GDPR?

Check out the IAPP's EU Data Protection Reform page for all the tools and resources you need.

IAPP-OneTrust PIA Platform

New U.S. Government Agency privacy impact assessments - free to IAPP members!

IAPP Communities

Meet locally with privacy pros, dive deep into specialized topics or connect over common interests. Find your Community in KnowledgeNet Chapters, Sections and Affinity Groups.

Privacy Vendor List

Find a privacy vendor to meet your needs with our filterable list of global service providers.

More Resources »

Europe Data Protection Intensive 2017

The Intensive is sold out! But cancellations do happen—so hurry and get on the wait list in case more seats become available.

Global Privacy Summit 2017

The world’s premier privacy conference returns with the sharpest minds, unparalleled programs and preeminent networking opportunities.

Canada Privacy Symposium 2017

The Symposium returns to Toronto this spring and registration has opened! Take advantage of Early Bird rates and join your fellow privacy pros for another stellar program.

The Privacy Bar Section Forum 2017

The Privacy Bar Section Forum is sold out! But you can still add your name to the wait list, and we'll keep in touch about your status. Good luck!

Asia Privacy Forum 2017

Call for Speakers open! Join the Forum in Singapore for exclusive networking and intensive education on data protection trends and challenges in the Asia Pacific region.

Privacy. Security. Risk. 2017

Call for Speakers open! This year, we're bringing P.S.R. to San Diego. Submit today and be a part of something big! Submission deadline: February 26.

Europe Data Protection Congress 2017

Call for Speakers open! The Congress is your source for European policy debate, multi-level strategic thinking and thought-provoking discussion. Submit a proposal by March 19.

Sponsor an Event

Increase visibility for your organization—check out sponsorship opportunities today.

More Conferences »

Become a Member

Start taking advantage of the many IAPP member benefits today

Corporate Members

See our list of high-profile corporate members—and find out why you should become one, too

Renew Your Membership

Don’t miss out for a minute—continue accessing your benefits

Join the IAPP»