Apps look to simplify privacy notices

The mobile app industry wants to make privacy policies easier to understand.

On Friday, mobile security company Lookout launched a tool to help app developers turn lengthy, legal documents into short-form privacy policies that users can comprehend.

The privacy toolkit walks developers and their lawyers through a questionnaire to help them shorten and simplify their privacy policies.

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App users need “a short form privacy policy that is really clear ... and understandable,” said Lookout’s associate general counsel, Irene Liu.

Lookout’s launch follows on last year’s launch of a government-backed voluntary code of conduct, encouraging app developers to be more transparent about their data practices.

In the fall, the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) wrapped up an 18-month-long process to develop a set of standards for short-form privacy policies. 

The code of conduct, crafted by tech companies, privacy advocates and online ad groups, is aimed at telling users about how an app collects and shares data in an easily understood format, rather than relying on sprawling privacy policies laced with legal terms.

Liu said the company hopes that its policy simplification tools, combined with the NTIA’s code of conduct, will be “a step in the direction toward a broader industry change.”

The company began creating its privacy policy tools before getting involved in last year’s NTIA process but has received positive feedback from the Commerce agency, according to Liu.

“They think that we’ve done a really awesome job doing user testing and creating iterations based on our user research,” she said.

An NTIA spokeswoman said the agency is “encouraged to see ... testing and implementing a code of conduct for mobile applications, which will benefit consumers.”

“This demonstrates once again the promise and importance of the multistakeholder policy-making process,” she said.

Other in the mobile app industry are also working on creating tools for app developers to shorten their privacy policies.

Last July, the Association for Competitive Technology, which represents more than 5,000 tech companies and app developers, including Microsoft, Apple and Oracle, launched the beta version of its Privacy Dashboard. That tool follows the guidelines from the Department of Commerce’s process and is available to developers to incorporate into their privacy policies.

“We are excited that others are joining the effort to build short form mobile privacy solutions based on the NTIA process,” President Jonathan Zuck said in a statement, adding that ACT’s participation in the Commerce process “was to kickstart the conversation” in the industry.

“We look forward to working with Lookout to share consumer feedback and testing results to continue improving privacy transparency.”

Earlier this month, the Application Developers Alliance, which works with Google, Yahoo and more than 30,000 app developers, announced that it would be launching its privacy policy tools with financial software company Intuit.

In a statement, Application Developers Alliance Vice President of Government Affairs Tim Sparapani said Lookout’s launch builds on industry progress towards increasing transparency around app data collection and use.

"The mobile app transparency Code of Conduct developed through the NTIA process is becoming a reality,” he said. “Intuit and Lookout are taking major steps to empower consumers to make informed app choices."