Amid growing concerns over the privacy policies of mobile phone apps, the GSMA has published a set of guidelines that aims to give users more transparency, choice and control over how apps use their personal information.
The guidelines, published on Monday, outline how consumers' privacy should be protected when they are using mobile applications and services that access, use or collect personal information. European mobile phone operators including Orange, Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom have said they will implement the guidelines, but with many apps being developed independently of the big players, digital rights organizations have questioned how valuable a voluntary code of conduct really is.
Anne Bouverot, Director General, GSMA admitted that there are significant privacy concerns over what apps do with users' information. "The privacy guidelines which are being implemented now are an important first step, but to effect real change, there needs to be close collaboration between the mobile industry, Internet industry, civil society and regulators," said Bouverot.
Facebook is just one of the companies in the firing line following revelations over the weekend that installing its Android app gives the Internet giant permission to read users' text messages. Facebook says that this permission is freely given by users and that it has not taken advantage of this right anyway.
"Other than some very limited testing, we haven't launched anything so we're not using the permission. When we do, it will be obvious to users what's happening," said the social networking site.
Path, another mobile social network, also recently attracted criticism for uploading users' address books without explicitly asking for permission. But apps from Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, Foodspotting, Flickr, Yahoo and Yelp also suck information from users' phones.
Most commonly, apps access names and email addresses. Some store this information and some do not, some ask for permission and some do not. There is such confusion in the market, that Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, described it as "an unregulated Wild West."
He welcomed the move by GSMA, which represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, but said it fails to address the broader question of who is responsible for the unscrupulous gathering of personal data. "Far greater regulation is required before apps are installed, as it is hardly a fair choice between granting apps the access they want or not being able to use the app at all," said Pickles.
"Consumers are downloading seemingly innocuous apps without realizing their phone calls, location and text messages are all potentially being monitored," he continued. The Facebook app has been downloaded to Google's Android smartphones more than 100 million times. If Facebook is not using the information it collects, why has it gone to such lengths to collect the data, Pickles asked. "There appears to be a mentality amongst app developers that just because they have the ability to access this data then they should, whether they have the intention to manipulate it or not."
For many apps developers the answer is simple: they can make more money selling information about consumers to advertisers and market research companies than charging for the app. It is a problem that even the big mobile companies have started to take note of.
"In order to maintain the strong growth in both the sales and popularity of mobile apps, customers need to be confident that their privacy is protected when they use them," said Stephen Deadman, group privacy officer, Vodafone.