How much would you pay for privacy?
Wilson's comments highlight a sentiment that too few app developers seem to comprehend. To Wilson, Farm Frenzy was a game that was worth no more than $2. When he went to download it, however, he learned the hidden cost: The game would be free to plunder his contact list for any purpose it wanted, including spamming his contacts and selling them to third parties. Access to smartphone data is on an all-or-nothing basis; once the user approves the permissions, the barn door is effectively open. When the customer is willing to pay more than the cost of your app just to keep that barn door closed, you've lost a sale, to say nothing of goodwill.
HeroCraft, the developer of Farm Frenzy, says it never had any intention of spamming users' contacts or any other underhanded practice, and it has since reduced the number of permissions requested by the app. But statements like these don't do much to reassure customers, especially when they can easily be withdrawn tomorrow.
Take the case of Color Flashlight, a free app available in the Android Market. According to one user, "the lying greedy [developer] secretly put ads in the last update and didn't mention this at all in the changelog!" What's more, the new version requires permission to take pictures and videos with the phone's camera, prompting some users to suggest it can secretly take photos and post them to the Internet. More likely, the app needs access to the camera to use its LED flash as a flashlight, but the customers' trust had already been lost.
Consumers understand that companies change over time, and so do their policies. Today's chief executive might have ideas the last one didn't, or a smaller company might merge with a larger one. When these changes happen, customers worry about what might happen to any data they've already turned over, as well as what new data the company might want to collect, analyze, use, or sell in the future.
What could possibly go wrong?
Perhaps because mobile apps often seem so trivial, it's easy to overlook the potential seriousness of misuse of smartphone data. But in the wrong hands, a contact list could lead to lost friendships, missed business opportunities, or a ruined marriage. An appointment calendar could inadvertently disclose a medical condition. And location data could let burglars know when you're away from home or tell pedophiles what route your children walk to school.
If you're developing apps that use customers' mobile data, you need to do more than recognize these realities. You need to develop a policy that places secure, ethical, and appropriate handling of user data at the core of your application development process. Embrace best practices; for example, request only those permissions that are absolutely necessary for the app to function, and disclose in detail why your apps need certain permissions to function before users download the app. Establish trust early, and maintain that trust by giving users fine-grained control over their own data.
In other words, mobile app developers should borrow a page from the smartphone platform vendors' playbook and take a proactive stance in asserting their respect for users' privacy. If smartphone vendors don't address this issue swiftly and loudly, and app makers don't follow suit, the Florida class-action filing against Apple will be but the tip of the iceberg -- and independent app developers may find themselves on a collision course with both users and their lawyers.
This article, "Why users don't trust mobile apps," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Neil McAllister's Fatal Exception blog and follow the latest news in programming at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.