In the fight for online freedom and the right to privacy there are three main ways in which action can be taken. The first is for each individual to protect their online identity by using the right privacy software and applying common sense to their online activities. The second is to protest (like the Internet Blackout Day in January) and the third is to use the law. It is this third option which is being used this week by a group of 13 individuals in Texas, who have filed a class action, and by two congressmen who have sent Apple a letter asking Timothy Cook, Apple’s chief executive, to make representatives available to brief an Energy and Commerce subcommittee.
The class action is being brought against 18 tech companies including Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Yelp and the makers of the popular game Angry Birds for stealing contacts from Android and iOS powered smart phones without the owner’s permission or knowledge. The lawsuit is in response to a story which broke in February when a blogger noticed that the social networking service Path uploaded a phones entire address book to its servers. This resulted in Path issuing an apology, deleting its entire collection of user uploaded contact information from its servers and issuing a new version of its app. But it soon turned out that other social networking apps did exactly the same thing and hence the lawsuit.
The plaintiff’s complaint is that the contacts in a mobile phone, which includes physical and e-mail addresses, job titles and birthdays as well as phone numbers, are some of the most personal data that owners carry on their wireless mobile devices. And they claim that the defendants have made, distributed and sold apps that, once installed on a wireless mobile device, surreptitiously harvest, upload and illegally steal the owner’s address book data without the owner’s knowledge or consent.
The complaint then goes on to quote from the New York times: “The address book in smartphones — where some of the user’s most personal data is carried— is free for app developers to take at will, often without the phone owner’s knowledge. . . Companies that make many of the most popular smartphone apps for Apple and Android devices — Twitter, Foursquare and Instagram among them — routinely gather the information in personal address books on the phone and in some cases store it on their own computers… While Apple says it prohibits and rejects any app that collects or transmits users’ personal data without their permission, that has not stopped some of the most popular applications for the iPhone, iPad and iPod — like Yelp, Gowalla, Hipsterand Foodspotting — from taking users’ contacts and transmitting it without their knowledge.”
“We’re making some fairly serious allegations against the big boys,” the plaintiffs’ attorney, Jeff Edwards, told the Austin American-Statesman. “We’re saying, ‘Hey, you took something that didn’t belong to you, and you’re making a profit off it.’”
Congress it seems is also interested in how apps can get hold of a user’s data. This week Representative Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat, and Representative G.K. Butterfield, Democrat of North Carolina, sent a letter to Apple’s CEO Timothy Cook asking for further clarification on how applications for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch are allowed to access photos without a user’s knowledge. In fact this is the second letter the pair have sent to Apple. Having received Apple’s reply to their first letter, Waxman and Butterfield wrote back to Apple saying that Apple’s reply did “not answer a number of the questions raised about the company’s efforts to protect the privacy and security of its mobile device users.”
Rather than asking for another reply from Apple, this time the two ranking members of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade are asking Apple to make available representatives to brief staff on the committee.