Categories: Developers / Mobile Apps

Mobile apps have infiltrated every part of our lives. For the most part, consumers are fine with that. Convenience trumps privacy.

Enabling geotracking lets you add filters to your Snaps. Allowing photo library access lets you post pre-existing photos to Instagram. Saying yes to sharing to accounts, contacts and microphones comes with handy perks.

But every so often an app crosses the line. Start-up Alphonso just made the news for software that secretly monitors the TV viewing habits of its users. How? The technology uses a phone’s microphone to record background noise and pick out snippets from TV shows and movies.

The company argues that the software does not record human speech, and that the scope of the technology is laid out in its app descriptions and privacy policies. But is that enough?

Do users of mobile apps really know what they’re opting in for?

Are your mobile apps watching you?

Are your mobile apps watching you?

Many users click through user agreement screens without reading them. After all, they can span dozens of pages of legalese in tiny text. And others may “allow” access to their camera roll or microphone assuming it’s only for essential activities within the app.

Part of the reason that Alphonso hit the papers is that its technology is used in several apps aged at a kid audience. Are these users legally able to sign away their – and their family’s – privacy? Do they actually know what they’re agreeing to?

Even adult users might not truly understand your privacy requests. In the case of the Alphonso-related apps, users gave “permission for microphone access for ads”. Does this text do enough to describe to users how, when and what personal information will be tracked. And for what purposes?

It’s essential to be clear about the kind of information your app is collecting, when, and why. Being up-front is much better than being “caught out”.

How can we make those “opt-in” agreements more fair?

Make it easy for mobile app users to know what they're agreeing to.

Make it easy for mobile app users to know what they’re agreeing to.

Studies show that only about a quarter of users even “look” at a privacy agreement. And looking at isn’t the same as reading.

Part of the issue is in the design of those agreements. A huge wall of text labeled with an “I agree” button encourages blind clicking. On the other hand, “yes” or “no” buttons make users more likely to pause and reflect.

Additionally, putting all of this information up front makes it difficult for users to make an informed decision. If you haven’t used the app yet, how can you understand how it functions?

One way is to offer two versions of your privacy agreement. A full version for avid readers, and a bullet point version for regular people. Another way is to provide “as you go” privacy declarations.

If a user wants to take a photo, ask them right then if your app can use their camera. If you need location services to perform a certain action, get their permission to turn them on in the moment. Let your privacy notifications happen in real time. Provide hover boxes showing who can see what when they first load a social feed. If others can see every “like” or “share”, give them a heads up the first time they “like” something.

How much data does the world really need?

Finally, consider what information you really need to collect from a user. With people expressing disquiet about technology tracking their every move we may be on the brink of a privacy backlash.

Privacy is part of the user experience. Developers of mobile apps need to take it seriously if we want to see our space flourish – rather than be something that people shy away from.

Touchtap is a digital agency specializing in mobile-first development.We can build your mobile app for you.

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