John Paczkowski

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Apple: App Access to Contact Data Will Require Explicit User Permission

After a week of silence, Apple has finally responded to reports that dozens of iOS applications have been accessing, transmitting and storing user contact data without explicit permission. Path was the first to be flagged for this, and others, including Twitter, Yelp and Foursquare, have since tidied up the way they ask for address book data. Apple has faced growing criticism that it has given iOS developers far too much access to address book information without requiring a user prompt.

Today, the company agreed with that assessment, and said that soon, apps that use address book data will require explicit user permission to do so.

“Apps that collect or transmit a user’s contact data without their prior permission are in violation of our guidelines*,” Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr told AllThingsD. “We’re working to make this even better for our customers, and as we have done with location services, any app wishing to access contact data will require explicit user approval in a future software release.”

So Apple has done the right thing, arguably something it should have done long ago: Assure users that no app can read their contact data without their permission.

Apple’s comment follows, by minutes, an inquiry from Congress, expressing concerns that iOS developers may be accessing and storing user data without proper permission. “This incident raises questions about whether Apple’s iOS app developer policies and practices may fall short when it comes to protecting the information of iPhone users and their contacts,” House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman and Commerce Manufacturing and Trade Subcommittee Chair G.K. Butterfield said in a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook. “How many iOS apps in the U.S. iTunes Store transmit information from the address book? How many of those ask for the user’s consent before transmitting their contacts’ information?”

The Committee’s full letter, below:

Mr. Tim Cook
Chief Executive Officer, Apple Inc.
1 Infinite Loop
Cupertino, CA 95014

Dear Mr. Cook:

Last week, independent iOS app developer Arun Thampi blogged about his discovery that the social networking app “Path” was accessing and collecting the contents of his iPhone address book without ever having asked for his consent.[1] The information taken without his permission — or that of the individual contacts who own that information — included full names, phone numbers, and email addresses.[2] Following media coverage of Mr. Thampi’s discovery, Path’s Co-Founder and CEO Dave Morin quickly apologized, promised to delete from Path’s servers all data it had taken from its users’ address books, and announced the release of a new version of Path that would prompt users to opt in to sharing their address book contacts.[3]

This incident raises questions about whether Apple’s iOS app developer policies and practices may fall short when it comes to protecting the information of iPhone users and their contacts.

The data management section of your iOS developer website states: “iOS has a comprehensive collection of tools and frameworks for storing, accessing, and sharing data. … iOS apps even have access to a device’s global data such as contacts in the Address Book, and photos in the Photo Library.”[4] The app store review guidelines section states: “We review every app on the App Store based on a set of technical, content, and design criteria. This review criteria is now available to you in the App Store Review Guidelines.”[5] This same section indicates that the guidelines are available only to registered members of the iOS Developer Program.[6] However, tech blogs following the Path controversy indicate that the iOS App Guidelines require apps to get a user’s permission before “transmit[ting] data about a user”.[7]

In spite of this guidance, claims have been made that “there’s a quiet understanding among many iOS app developers that it is acceptable to send a user’s entire address book, without their permission, to remote servers and then store it for future reference. It’s common practice, and many companies likely have your address book stored in their database.”[8] One blogger claims to have conducted a survey of developers of popular iOS apps and found that 13 of 15 had a “contacts database with millions of records” — with one claiming to have a database containing “Mark Zuckerberg’s cell phone number, Larry Ellison’s home phone number and Bill Gates’ cell phone number.”[9]

The fact that the previous version of Path was able to gain approval for distribution through the Apple iTunes Store despite taking the contents of users’ address books without their permission suggests that there could be some truth to these claims. To more fully understand and assess these claims, we are requesting that you respond to the following questions:

- Please describe all iOS App Guidelines that concern criteria related to the privacy and security of data that will be accessed or transmitted by an app.

- Please describe how you determine whether an app meets those criteria.

- What data do you consider to be “data about a user” that is subject to the requirement that the app obtain the user’s consent before it is transmitted?

- To the extent not addressed in the response to question 2, please describe how you determine whether an app will transmit “data about a user” and whether the consent requirement has been met.

- How many iOS apps in the U.S. iTunes Store transmit “data about a user”?

- Do you consider the contents of the address book to be “data about a user”?

- Do you consider the contents of the address book to be data of the contact? If not, please explain why not. Please explain how you protect the privacy and security interests of that contact in his or her information.

- How many iOS apps in the U.S. iTunes Store transmit information from the address book? How many of those ask for the user’s consent before transmitting their contacts’ information?

- You have built into your devices the ability to turn off in one place the transmission of location information entirely or on an app-by-app basis. Please explain why you have not done the same for address book information.

Please provide the information requested no later than February 29, 2012. If you have any questions regarding this request, you can contact Felipe Mendoza with the Energy and Commerce Committee Staff at 202-226-3400.

Sincerely,

Henry A. Waxman, Ranking Member

G.K. Butterfield, Ranking Member

Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade

*These are the guidline to which Apple refers

17.1: Apps cannot transmit data about a user without obtaining the user’s prior permission and providing the user with access to information about how and where the data will be used

PLA
3.3.9 You and Your Applications may not collect user or device data without prior user consent, and then only to provide a service or function that is directly relevant to the use of the Application, or to serve advertising. You may not use analytics software in Your Application to collect and send device data to a third party.


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