Android Privacy, Facebook’s App Store, and the FCC

I’m in Ur Apps

Privacy-minded Android users got a shock this week when Carnegie Mellon announced the results of a recent app privacy study. It turns out that dozens of popular apps track their users’ locations to within a 50-meter radius, approximately every three minutes. Yep, your apps know more about your whereabouts than your spouse. The timing of this research is interesting, since in 2014, a Pew study found that 90% of polled Americans feel they’ve lost control over their personal data. Though the need for location services is obvious for some apps, Carnegie Mellon found that the frequency of the tracking was far above what these apps would require to deliver accurate information.

Which apps are the most stalkerish? Among the offenders were The Weather Channel, Groupon, Facebook, and Google Play. And why should you care? Because in previous research, Carnegie Mellon showed that 73% of the time, apps are sharing your personal information with advertising networks. So the very information that makes for a more robust app experience is being used to target advertising to you. We can’t help but also think of the recent revelations that the NSA is collecting private user information from leaky apps and be even more worried that everything about us, from our marital status to shopping preferences to exact location is fodder for advertisers and spies. It would sound paranoid if it weren’t so absolutely true. 

Facebook is a Platform Again

This week was Facebook’s F8 conference and the larger theme could easily be captured in this quote from Deborah Liu, platform director at Facebook: “We want to help you build sustainable businesses for the long term.” Whether it was our favorite talk (Facebook’s Oculus VR Demo), the new open access to Messenger for 3rd parties, or Parse being expanded to incorporate IoT functionality, it seems that Facebook is getting back to it’s roots as a platform company. But how are they doing this on mobile, where the reduced friction of social networks has caused a drastic unbundling? And why does Facebook care about anyone else’s business?

The simple answer is attention. It’s a scare resource and that makes it inherently valuable and on mobile Facebook has tons of it. The top 4 apps of 2014 (by downloads) are owned by Facebook. Facebook understands the mobile revolution and specifically how much we all rely on apps. They won’t be able to build everything themselves, but by using their vast well of attention (in exchange for advertising dollars, of course) they are able to take part in the overall success of apps. They are a key player in the success of Free-to-Play games, for instance.

But it’s not just attention. By being the central store of basic social info, and having so many pieces of the social graph, they are uniquely positioned to very accurately target and measure advertising. This gives them enormous revenue potential, because advertising that can demonstrate a solid ROI will easily lead to increased spending by advertisers. And Facebook has managed to be positioned here just as brand advertising (the biggest spending by far) has woken up to how much more attention we are placing on apps than traditional places like TV. Getting back to Liu’s quote: Solid ROI means stronger businesses devoted to ever increasing advertising budgets.

The FCC vs. Alamo and USTelecom

The FCC is being hit with lawsuits for its recent reclassification of broadband as a utility. As has been repeated in a dozen ways across two sets of hearings and two lawsuits, the complainants are decrying the new rules as, “arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion.” On USTelecom’s site the rebukes are more mild: “USTelecom fully supports a broad public inquiry on how best to maintain and improve an open and transparent Internet, and our industry remains firmly committed to open Internet principles. But the Title II approach is ill-advised.”

USTelecom (which represents some of the largest broadband providers in the county) filed its suit against the FCC with the Court of Appeals. At the same time, tiny, angry Texas provider Alamo Broadband filed their own suit in a New Orleans Federal Court. None of this was surprising, since providers have been up in arms about Net Neutrality since the February 26 vote.

We watched the hearings, both the original vote and the endless testimonies in front of the Senate, and one thing that stood out amidst the hours of rhetoric was FCC Chair Tom Wheeler’s absolute fearlessness in the face of dissention. His “bring it on” attitude is fantastic, and we look forward to more of his and Commissioner Clyburn’s eloquent schooling in the undoubtedly protracted legal debates to come.

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