Apps, Your Personal Data, and Ethics

There have been headlines in the past few weeks concerning the practice of mobile apps transmitting your private data without permission, most notably Path. Judging by the outrage of customers and mobile users in general, the first question that came to my mind was “What were they thinking?” I still can’t see how anyone thought a customer would be OK with an App collecting and transmitting their smartphone Address Book data without being asked for permission first. The first time I heard of a program secretly accessing data like this I think it was called the Melissa virus.

I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t speak for the legality of such practices. I do believe they are in violation of clear App Store policies. The more important question I would like to pose: Are these practices ethical?

Ethics is a complicated subject, but the best advice I received is to use the “New York Times Test.” Put simply, how would you feel if something you did, or failed to do, showed up on the cover of the New York Times, for all the world to see? Imagine everyone you are related to, have worked with, or will work with in the future knowing about it.

If you feel what you are doing is acceptable, can be explained logically and clearly defended, and you can honestly say that your customers and/or stakeholders will not have a problem with it, then chances are good that what you are doing is ethical. “No chance of embarrassment here. We are in the clear. I truly believe we are doing the right thing.”

If however you would be uncomfortable having your actions put in such a public light, would have to defend yourself with complex explanations, and would probably have your reputation impacted, then it is a pretty good bet what you are doing is unethical. “If our customers knew about this they would not be happy. We can make excuses or explain it somehow, but in the end people will not like us.”

I think any reasonable person will say that collecting a user’s personal data from their mobile device without their knowledge or permission fails this test. Once your customer knows about it there is a lot of explaining to do, i.e. Damage Control. I believe that the practice is unethical.

Still not sure if what you are doing is ethical? Why not just ask your customer? “Would you be OK with this?” Ask permission.

Are the data mining, network effects, and other phantom advantages worth it? I can’t imagine how this is a good idea long term. Short term there may be benefits, but consider the cost. We as software vendors need to live up to high standards so that our customers can feel confident that we are providing them with solutions to their problems without causing them new problems. As an industry it is in our best interest to be ethical. Failing to pass such tests could result in litigation, and even worse, unnecessary government regulation that will stifle our growth. I believe the Mobile Space is our best chance to get the American economy out of its current doldrums. Let’s be careful and err on the side of protecting our customers and behaving ethically.

About Andre Oporto
Creating mobile and cloud-based productivity and collaboration tools for business.

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