If one were to read the Federal Trade Commission’s recent staff report discussing ways to protect consumer privacy in mobile apps, one might conclude the federal government genuinely was concerned about consumer privacy.
Among other recommendations, the report supports safeguards such as making data collection more transparent for consumers, requiring affirmative express consent in real-time before data is collected, and adding “Do Not Track” (DNT) mechanisms for mobile users. The agency goes on to give itself a hearty pat on the back for endorsing such processes. In the words of Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz, “[t[hese best practices will help to safeguard consumer privacy and build trust in the mobile marketplace.”
Taking privacy cues from the federal government is – to say the least --ironic, considering today’s Orwellian level of surveillance. At virtually any given time outside of one’s own home, an American citizen can reasonably assume his movements and actions are being monitored by something, by somebody, somewhere.
Traffic and crime surveillance cameras record your whereabouts on the streets. Police department license plate scanners record where and when you park. Mysterious black boxes located in vehicles track your driving. And, thanks to a recent rare display of congressional bipartisanship that renewed amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) a little over a month ago, civilians cannot even be certain their phone calls and emails are not being read and monitored by government snoops.
Once we factor in third-party monitoring via mobile apps, which can continuously track a cell phone’s geo-location even without the user’s knowledge or consent, the very concept of “privacy” becomes virtually irrelevant. There is, however, a major difference between the snooping undertaken by mobile apps, and such actions by government officials: civilians can decide to delete an app if they believe the privacy risks are too great; we cannot simply opt-out of government-sponsored surveillance.