Data nutrition labels for apps


SPOTLIGHT Ghostery's senior product strategist, Andy Kahl, on disclosing mobile data collection on apps

On my smartphone, right now, I can check my bank account, take a Spanish lesson, scan a barcode, check yesterday's sports scores, share witty commentary with my friends, and even play a game where I keep zombies from trying to eat plants. Much of this activity is available to me for free, or at least without paying to download the app itself. Instead, many of these apps are funded by targeting advertising based on data about me.

We're still very much in the pioneering days of data driven app economics. Technical standards for data collection and use may be in the distance, but ideas are emerging about how disclosure standards might take shape. One proposed solution is to develop a kind of data 'nutrition label' similar to those found on food containers.

Consumer data choicesThe goal here is, of course, to mold privacy disclosures to the quick swipe, small screen world of mobile devices, which will allow users to quickly understand the information and make an informed choice about the way data their is used. Research indicates that this is not just a type of data collection tax on innovative businesses, but that the app developers themselves have something to gain as well.

We can look to the desktop browser-based AdChoices Programme for a projection of how users will potentially interact with mobile disclosures. An early study about that Programme from Evidon in 2012 indicates that three in five (61%) of UK users believe it is important that companies disclose their use of consumer data, and over half (54%) agreed that when brands are transparent with them it makes them feel better about those companies.

This shows there are gains to be made in terms of brand reputation when clear disclosures are part of an application. This is especially relevant as companies attach their brands to applications for marketing purposes, including every major retailer and many large consumer brands with applications specific to their stores or products.

Good for developers tooAdditionally, there are tactical advantages to good disclosure, beyond reputation building. The process of disclosing data collection tools can often help companies take a much needed critical look at their strategies.

Looking at tracking partners deployed by a branded app from a leading American sports entertainment company, over 50 trackers are deployed. This strategy is generally employed by a content publisher looking to match its users to advertisements by any means possible. This app, however, is owned by a publisher that controls an interesting data set and who can be shrewd about its choice of marketing partners.

User data is like any other commodity; its value depends on its rarity. This application is spreading the value of its data set very thin. Being able to disclose these technologies means the publisher has to see them all first, so regular and comprehensive audits are required, and with them an assessment of the value and vulnerability that each new technology may bring.

Another example is a major international consumer brand that operates multiple apps for each of its products. There are 12 unique data collection scripts that are deployed, but only one – Flurry – is used by more than one app. This company is sharing data about its users, but isn't doing an effective job of sharing that data among its own applications. Disclosure standards would force this kind of internal auditing and begin the process of implementing more effective data practices.

Don't wait for legislationConsumer brands and app developers shouldn't wait for legislation to dictate what they must do; they should listen to their users and consumer advocates. Disclosing their data practices won't only help us understand the kinds of data that are collected about us, but it can also help the companies engaging in this practice operate a more profitable, less risk prone, and better perceived business.

An easy add-on for every major browser and available as an iPad and iPhone app, Ghostery helps people around the world understand and control more than 1,700 trackers that are tracking them when they browse.


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