Rich's Mad Rants
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Thoughts on Privacy

The Obama administration has just announced its Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. This appears to be the first step in an attempt to create legislation that would give users both more information about the data that companies are collecting about them, and more control over when and how companies collect that information. While this is clearly targeted at the large social media players, especially Google and Facebook, it could also have a huge affect on the lives of smaller, independent software designers--especially those of us working on mobile apps.

I often find that privacy is a tricky topic. On the surface it seems simple. All of us want more privacy, and more control is always a good thing. Yet, we can often benefit by giving away bits of our privacy. Sometimes we trade away our privacy for free services. Other times, we sacrifice our privacy to improve the services we already have. In many (if not most) cases this is harmless--perhaps even desirable. But, do I have the right to make that decision for my customers?

For me, the issue comes to a head with third party analytic tools, like Flurry. Don't get me wrong. I love data. I use quite a few health-related apps and products to monitor my sleep, the number of steps I take each day, the food I eat and more. I can't wait until someone releases a wristband that can monitor my heart rate and body temperature 24 hours a day. I'm not sure what I'll do with all that data--but I know that I want it.

The same instinct goes for my software. Instruments is probably my all-time favorite developer's tool. I love being able to examine my code as it is running--finding computational bottlenecks and picking apart how, exactly, my app is using memory. This tells me a lot about my application, and lets me make changes that produce concrete, real-world improvements.

Similarly, analytic tools like Flurry let me track how my customers are using my applications in the real world. How often do they use the app? How long do they use it? Which features do they use most often? Are there any features that they aren't using (or aren't finding)? By adding a few, simple tags to my code, I can generate a wealth of information that I can use to improve both the quality and usefulness of my app.

However, to do this, I need to record information about  my users. Worse yet, I am sharing that information with a third party, and I really have no idea what they are doing with that information. Now, I doubt Flurry's doing anything seriously nefarious . But they are capable of combining the data they collect with real-world events in startling ways, like their analysis of mobile app usage during the Super Bowl.


Let's face it. Flurry is a free service. So, it's reasonable to assume that they plan on monetizing that data somehow. And, when I add Flurry to my applications, I'm basically selling my customer's data to Flurry--probably without my customer's knowledge or consent. So, while I've used it in the past--I'm not sure I'm comfortable adding it to my applications anymore.

Still, those privacy concerns don't seem to stop a lot of developers. According to their website, Flurry Analytics is used by over 60,000 companies and 150,000 apps across most major (and a few minor) mobile markets.

It's important to note, even though I'm calling Flurry out by name, I don't necessarily mean to attack (or endorse) them. They are just one among many analytic toolkits. However, I have used them in the past, so they are the tool that I'm most familiar with. More importantly, I think that tools like Flurry Analytics represent a complex privacy issue that probably needs more thought and analysis. Ultimately, as users, we want the people who develop our apps to have access to this kind of information. It is an incredibly useful tool that can vastly improve the quality and utility of the applications we use daily. However, we may also want to know where that information is going and how it is being used.

Now, I admit, it's a long way from announcing the Privacy Bill of Rights to actual legislation. However, it seems that Congress is ready to take a more active role in this area. Just this month, both Google and Apple have had to address Congress about privacy concerns. And, whatever Congress decides to do, it will undoubtedly have long-reaching affects on both how we create apps and the tools we use to monitor them.