It was a typical slow summer week on the mobile front, but if you’re the type who likes controversy, keep an eye on the growing fracas centered on smartphones and privacy. Because the issue is only going to get more heated, even when it isn’t necessarily warranted.
Palm drew derision when application developer Joey Hess blogged that he’d discovered that the Pre’s webOS sends information regarding GPS location and app usage to a Palm database. Sure enough, the revelation made its way into tech blogs and eventually the mainstream media, where users were encouraged to address “Palm’s disregard for your privacy.”
That little tempest in the mobile teapot was quickly followed by allegations from one developer — yes, that’s right, one – that the mobile analytics company Pinch Media is “spying on you.” Pinch Media seems to one-up Palm, tracking not only app usage and location but the device’s unique ID, OS version and whether the app is cracked or pirated. Oh, and also the user’s gender and date of birth… if the user has divulged that info to Facebook.
Predictably, the developments sparked outrage among a few bloggers and consumers, resulting in sky-is-falling stories with headlines like “How 10 digits will end privacy as we know it” and “Pinch Media: anatomy of a spyware vendor.”
But here’s the thing: None of the stories I saw had even anecdotal evidence that the data was being used in any objectionable manner. No tales of users being shocked to receive a mobile coupon for the store they were walking by, no underhanded efforts to get consumers to offer up their friends’ contact info, no creepy stories of come-ons from advertisements that seemed way too targeted.
Contrast that to Beacon, Facebook’s disastrous ad initiative from a couple of years ago. Among other things, the program tracked the purchases of unsuspecting users shopping at Facebook partner sites, then sent alerts to the users’ contacts regarding their buying habits. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was forced to apologize for the debacle, and the site quickly made the program an opt-in initiative, requiring users to actively divulge such info.
That’s very different than both Pinch Media’s analytics service (which can’t be used to identify any individual) and Palm’s ability to pinpoint a user’s location (which, Palm claims, is used to provide relevant local results through Google Maps). That’s not to say that Pinch Media and Palm are blameless in this little scuffle: Both companies should do a better job of alerting users what kind of information is being collected, and both should more clearly outline policies for customers who choose not to participate.
And I think it’s incumbent on app developers to deliver goods and services that demonstrate the benefits of giving up a little info. Forget the intrusive, unwanted Starbucks-scenario coupons, and instead focus on ways to help users make their lives better. Engage with consumers who value interactive marketing, or are willing to accept ads in exchange for something of value, and don’t harass users who don’t.
There will always be the tin-foil-hat-wearing types who refuse to join the local grocery-store shopper’s club because they fear someone will track their hot-dog buying habits, and there are many legitimate privacy concerns given the capabilities of today’s high-end phones (although those problems can often be blamed on users themselves). The key for marketers in the digital age is to treat consumers as adults, tell them what they’re being asked to divulge and show them why they should consider sharing the info.