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Cupertino to ban permissionless address book copying

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Apple – arguably a villain in the “Path copies your address book” brouhaha – has, under pressure from US lawmakers, decided to require that apps prompt users before accessing their address book data.

According to Reuters, the decision came after members of the US House Energy and Commerce committee asked Apple to provide the committee with information about its privacy policies. The request came from Democrat representatives Henry Waxman of California, and GK Butterfield of North Carolina, who asked Apple to “clarify its developer guidelines”.

The spreading privacy scandal began when an app called Path was discovered uploading users’ address books without their knowledge (many outlets are now toning down this accusation to say “without their consent”. El Reg doesn’t understand this kindness: if you don’t tell someone it’s happening, they don’t have any chance to give or withhold consent).

Path wasn’t on its own for long: as soon as the world realized developers were given the chance to swell the value of their databases by treating their users as data entry clerks, it quickly emerged that Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and others pulled the same trick, in some cases without permission.

A Cupertino cultist spokesperson said that the fix will “make this even better for our customers” (El Reg: We know. This phrase was so awful it should be recorded for all time).

“As we have done with location services, any app wishing to access contact data will require explicit user approval in a future software release,” the spokesperson told Reuters.

The Path scandal is having some interesting repercussions in other places. Defenses of Path mounted by investor Michael Arrington drew this blistering sledge from Dan Lyons, who outlines an incestuous investor-blogger culture in Silicon Valley.

Roger Clarke of the Australian Privacy Foundation told The Register that public outrage against developers – whether their actions are malicious or merely careless – is really the only effective defense the end user has against such encroachments.

A company like Path, Clarke explained, is beyond the jurisdiction of non-US privacy regulators (like Australia’s Tim Pilgrim), and while uploading the address book may violate the privacy of individuals in the address book, the user uploading it probably isn’t subject to the Privacy Act.

Name-and-shame is pretty much all there is. “Privacy law is a waste of space, since it doesn’t protect privacy; public outrage is our only protection”, Clarke said. ®

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