Why App Developers Need to Come Clean on Data Practices

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Data Privacy
Customer Experience

Consumers may be nimble app users, but when it comes to understanding an app's terms of service, many remain in the dark. More people are becoming aware of data collection practices but they are also confused about the data that is being collected about them and how it is being used. The recent brouhaha over the Facebook Messenger app is the latest example of the gap between users' privacy concerns and their understanding of companies' data practices.
Protests in response to Facebook introducing a new feature to its platform are nothing new.

However, a number of reports, such as a 2013 Huffingtonpost article and a recent article from a radio station in Houston, combined with opaque app permissions, triggered an additional wave of alarm in response to the social network's new standalone messaging app.

Some users believed that the messaging app's terms of service are more intrusive than the average app. What worries users is the long list of permissions that is displayed when they download the app. Android users, for example, see a list of 10 items that the app needs access to, including location data, contacts, Wi-Fi information, and the device's microphone.

Given that the permissions request doesn't explain why the app needs access to these areas, it is easy to assume the worst, that the app will be used to spy on you. But these requests are similar to other applications.

"If you want your app to do cool stuff, that's great, but don't hide what you're doing," says Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology. "And explain it in a way that people will understand."

Failing to communicate with users will hurt companies in the long run, Brookman continues, since consumers are looking for businesses that they can trust.

Forrester Research analyst Fatemeh Khatibloo agrees. In a recent report, Evolving Consumer Attitudes on Privacy, Khatibloo notes that "Even individuals who've educated themselves are confused about many of the practices within the consumer data ecosystem. But treating that misinformation as apathy would be a mistake; consumers want trustworthiness from the businesses they interact with."

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EXPERT OPINION