Tech firms make app privacy pledge

SAN JOSE, Calif.

It's estimated mobile applications have been downloaded 35 billion times onto smartphones and tablets. Yet only 22 out of the top 30 have a privacy policy, according to California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

"Giving the consumer, giving the user control, letting them know -- because the reality is most of us don't understand the technology, so we don't know what it is capable of doing," Harris said. "But if we knew, we would make certain decisions. We don't necessarily want to legislate that it's a violation of the law."

Harris and her staff sat down last August with the six largest companies that market apps: Amazon, Apple, Google, HP, Microsoft and Research in Motion, the maker of the Blackberry.

All six have agreed to comply with state law by working with app developers to create privacy policies, post them before a download occurs, and to help to enforce the law.

Harris said mobile apps can routinely collect a user's name, phone number, address, location and other personal details without the user's knowledge.

"Knowing that you're going to have to explain what information you're collecting and what you're doing with it can cause you to think it through and make some decisions on the front end. I would think long term, that would be a good impact," said Joanne McNabb, who heads the state's Office of Privacy Protection.

The big unknown is whether people will read the privacy policies before downloading apps and whether they understand them.

"Well if they don't go with the privacy policy, that basically means you're not installing the app," said Seth Rosenblatt, senior editor for software at "The chances of people actually not installing an app that they want or that they want to test out because of a privacy policy, I think, are pretty slim."

Expect the policies to start popping up as soon as they can be written. App developers could be subject to a $5,000 fine for every download violation.

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