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California begins crackdown on mobile app developers

Protect user privacy or face the courts

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In the next few weeks, up to 100 mobile application developers will be getting a letter from California's government ordering them to install privacy protection warnings on their apps or face the legal consequences.

The letters warn that "an operator of a commercial Web site or online service that collects personally identifiable information through the Internet about individual consumers residing in California who use or visit its commercial Web site or online service" must post a privacy policy, and awards a $2,500 fine for each non-compliant app download.

This is the result of a crackdown by attorney general Kamala Harris on the privacy policy requirements of the California Online Privacy Protection Act. Under the terms of the law any mobile applications that could be used by a Californian (i.e. almost all of them) must first display a privacy policy explaining what data is accessed by the app, as well as how and where it is stored.

"Protecting the privacy of online consumers is a serious law enforcement matter," Harris announced. "We have worked hard to ensure that app developers are aware of their legal obligations to respect the privacy of Californians, but it is critical that we take all necessary steps to enforce California’s privacy laws." In February, Harris announced she had worked out a deal on the issue with Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and RIM, but now she's going after the rest of the industry. This current batch of letters is aimed further down the stack, with airlines United and Delta confirmed to be on Harris' little list of miscreants along with smaller application developers like dining reservations site OpenTable.

Companies will have 30 days to comply with the letters or face further action. The actual changes needed to an application are minimal, just a privacy policy on display before installation, but it's yet another useless thing to worry about in the opinion of this El Reg hack.

Study after study has shown that these kinds of privacy policies and T&Cs screens are almost entirely ignored by users. You could stick a paragraph in there about users having to sacrifice their first-born to a graven image of Baal and virtually no-one would notice.

Still and all, California's precious little snowflakes apparently need some protection, so developers should expect to get a little extra work shortly. ®

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