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Are mobile Apps becoming too intrusive?

Tuesday October 22 2019

By JOHN WALUBENGO
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It has now become common to download one mobile application or another from your App or Play store. It is just the reality of our contemporary world that continues to offer us digital conveniences in our pockets.

Whether it is for the convenience of that online loan, online taxi, online messaging, online ticket, online mobile money – whatever it maybe – mobile applications have come in quite handy and useful.

The challenge, however, is that most of these mobile applications do require your consent in order to access a broad range of your personal data before they get installed on your mobile handset.

This may include a request by the mobile app to access your address book or contact list, your mobile phone camera or microphone, your calendar or internal storage.

Prior to the enactment of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe last year, many of these mobile applications were silently and in the background accessing and collecting your personal data during and after installation - without your knowledge or permission.

The GDPR rules have forced some transparency and sanity within the digital space and in particular the personal data economy.

Mobile application developers must now respect user privacy by explicitly asking for their consent before the mobile app can access your otherwise private data.

ABORT INSTALLATION

Whereas this privacy by design is a good development, it does present a new challenge in that if the user opts to deny the requested access, the mobile application would simply abort installation.

In essence, users are often left with the devil’s alternative – you either give up your privacy or give up that mobile app you so very want to install.

The reason that mobile app is often free is because the owners wants you to trade in that private data you are trying to retain. In exchange for the free service, your private data is monetized by mobile App companies through data mining or resale to third party advertisers.

As one of my good friends would always want to remind me - if you are not buying the product, you probably are the product.

How then can we balance the legitimate aims of a business with the equally legitimate concerns of the consumers to protect their privacy?

This is an open regulatory question whose answer is still evolving in within the digital data markets.

One approach is for the regulators to ensure competition, allowing consumers to compare and evaluate privacy demands from similar mobile applications and then vote with their feet to the better option.

Just as an example, consumers may not be aware that whereas WhatsApp is by far the most popular messaging app, Telegram has a far much more superior privacy experience.

So consumer awareness must go hand in hand with competition.

Competition on its own will, however, not address all the challenges because in some market segments, there maybe some competition but one dominant player may command seventy percent or more of the market.

In such a situation, the dominate player may deliberately design privacy intrusive mobile applications, knowing very well that you are unlikely to shift to the competitor due to the high cost incurred when shifting to competition.

POWER BALANCE

In markets with dominant players, the regulatory agencies are therefore supposed to have a deeper scrutiny of the power balance between the supplier and the consumer of the service.

This would be necessary to ensure that the consumer of the service is not exploited by mobile apps that demand more private data than what they actually need from the users.

Increasingly, we are beginning to see competition and increased regulatory scrutiny on the dominant players as the interim interventions to protect consumer privacy rights in an increasingly digitised society.

Next time you download and install that mobile app on your phone, take a moment to think about if you really need to be bullied into surrendering part of your privacy or if you are better of without the App.

More importantly, do an audit on your current mobile Apps to see which ones are accessing which private data on your phone and review if this is really necessary.

Those mobile Apps maybe be having a field day accessing every little corner of your life and laughing all the way to the bank - without your consent or knowledge.

Mr Walubengo is a lecturer at Multimedia University of Kenya, Faculty of Computing and IT.

Email: [email protected], Twitter: @Jwalu