Friday, 29 November 2013 14:42

Apple free to spy on its users – as are all!

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A US judge has ruled that Apple is within its rights to collect user information and share it with app developers and advertisers.

This possibly applies all mobile device makers and app writers. In fact it was not Apple but apps such as Dictionary.com, Pandora, the Weather Channel and Backflip - creator of the Paper Toss app, that collected and passed on to third party ad networks "Confidential data including users' geographic location, age, gender, income, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and political affiliations.”

While Judge Lucy Koh – well known in the patent wars cases – ruled in Apple's favour on a technicality, it does show that users do not have any specific rights to privacy.

"Critically, none of the plaintiffs presents evidence that he or she even saw, let alone read and relied upon, the alleged misrepresentations contained in the Apple Privacy Policies, SLAs [Software License Agreements], or App Store Terms and Conditions, either prior to purchasing thier iPhone, or at any time thereafter," Koh wrote.

"Plaintiffs each allude to a vague 'understanding' regarding Apple's privacy policies without providing any evidence whatsoever concerning the basis for this understanding," the 30-page judgment states. "But a vague 'understanding' about Apple's privacy policies is not enough. To survive summary judgment, plaintiffs are required to set forth 'specific facts' in support of standing."

That each of the plaintiffs had an iTunes account, requiring them agree to Apple's privacy policy, also does not indicate reliance. “The mere fact that plaintiffs had to scroll through a screen and click on a box stating that they agreed with the Apple Privacy Policy in July 2010 does not establish, standing alone, that plaintiffs actually read the alleged misrepresentations contained in that privacy policy, let alone that these misrepresentations subsequently formed the basis for plaintiffs' 'understanding' regarding Apple's privacy practices," said Koh.

Koh also blocked the plaintiffs from seeking damages for the collection of personal information because they did not show that the collection caused concrete harm. The plaintiffs had sought economic damages, arguing that they overpaid for their iPhones given the decreased battery life and bandwidth caused by the apps' data collection practices.

Opinion

There you have it. As long as an end user licence agreement (EULA) makes some vague mention of what is collected and what it may be used for – even if it is buried in 4000 pages of fine print (just kidding) the developer or manufacturer can pretty well do what it likes.

This opens up a new can of worms – if in fact it was ever closed – about anonymity and your rights on the internet. Big data – an amalgamation of facts about many users – is the least of your worries. Small data – granularity so fine that is can identify you - is far more of a concern.

Judge Koh could only rule at law. We can only hope that consumer groups will start to analyse these outrageous EULAs and begin to recommend that certain products not be purchased because of onerous conditions.

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw [email protected]  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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