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By Jennifer Baker

It is a sign of the growing concern over data privacy in apps that this year the Global Privacy Enforcement Network (GPEN) decided to focus its annual international privacy sweep on mobile applications.

While many businesses have already started to adapt their terms and conditions for data gathering to reflect concerns, apps have been slow to keep up. The reason GPEN decided to focus on apps stemmed from the concern that privacy policies offered on apps are often very lengthy and rarely read by the user. How many times have you clicked “I agree” without bothering to read the small print?

Last December, the UK's Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) warned businesses “that traditional ways of presenting information to customers about their privacy may not be suitable for a mobile environment.” In its guidelines, the ICO even suggested software developers could deploy "just-in-time notifications" to inform users about the imminent processing of personal data in their apps.

“The number of mobile applications offered to consumers is growing at an astonishing rate and many of them collect a great deal of personal information, so app developers need to be transparent and offer clear, easy-to-understand privacy information,” said Chantal Bernier, Interim Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

Both Canada and the UK took part in this year’s sweep, joining more than 20 other data protection authorities (DPAs) from across the globe.

Sweep participants looked initially in May at the types of permissions an app is seeking and whether those permissions are essential to the app’s functionality.

DPAs will also be trying to find out if mobile app users were sufficiently informed about the conditions of processing of their personal data, including: the type of data collected (location, contacts, device ID, etc..); why this data is collected; the possible transmission of data to third parties, and the ability of the object to the collection and transmission of data.

Participating authorities will look at all sorts of apps, but some have decided to focus on specific types of potentially sensitive apps, such as those relating to health or developed by public sector organizations.

According to a recent report from mHealthWatch, fitness apps are perceived to be one of biggest threats to user privacy due to the vast amount of personal data they collect including gender, age, height and weight.

But mobile banking apps are also considered among the more sensitive apps given the potential for theft. Earlier this year security assessment company IOActive published a report on the security of mobile banking apps and found that a vast number do not even implement two-step verification (2FA).

Earlier this year, companies targeting children with apps were also warned by the European Commission about the concerns arising from underage users, not least privacy concerns.

But its not just the potentially sensitive areas of health, banking or kids’ games that will be evaluated in the sweep. In 2013, the data protection authorities examined more than 2000 web sites on the first edition of Internet sweep day. The findings of this operation showed the inadequacy and sometimes the lack of clear information out of the conditions of processing of their personal data.

Steve Eckersley, head of the UK’s ICO enforcement team, said in a blog: “The sweep was an interesting piece of work, and I’d expect that bringing together the results from around the world will paint an illuminating picture. There’ll also be follow-up work around contacting specific organisations where we haven’t been impressed by their response."

The results of the 2014 sweep will be compiled and the findings should be made public before the end of the year. The countries taking part include Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Colombia, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Spain and the UK.

Jennifer Baker is a full-time journalist working out of Brussels for the likes of IDG News Service (Computerworld, PCWorld), European Voice, NewEurope and now for the IAPP. She covers IT and privacy policy developments. Find her on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek.

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