How Google Comes Out Cleaner Than Apple on Privacy

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2012-02-16

Path's privacy snafu of collecting address book data and storing it on remote servers without permission opened the floodgates of media hellhounds on that startup, along with Twitter, Foursquare, Yelp and others. Android Permissions.png

This comes a week after Google spent a couple weeks being demonized for its planned privacy policy changes, which go into effect next month.

So it was interesting to see the blowback from Path spray Apple like a double-barrelled shotgun.

Protest was so strong it attracted the unwanted attention from Congress--which, while generally ignorant on high-tech affairs, is quick to come down on any perceived slight or injustice to consumers.

This incident raises questions about whether Apple's iOS app developer policies and practices may fall short when it comes to protecting the information of iPhone users and their contacts," Congressmen Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) wrote in a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Apple kowtowed, as a company spokesperson noted:

Apps that collect or transmit a user's contact data without their prior permission are in violation of our guidelines. We're working to make this even better for our customers, and as we have done with location services, any app wishing to access contact data will require explicit user approval in a future software release.

So where does Google work its way into this application conversation? I'm glad you asked. While Apple has scrambled to shore up its contact and address book permissions, Google is going about its business.

Tim Bray, Google's head of Android developer relations, tweeted on Twitter: Reading contacts on Android requires explicit OK. He also linked to articles on how Android forces app devs to grant permission to access personal data.

Android can't access any personal information stored on a user's handset unless the user grants explicit permission to that app before the app is installed.

When you download an app from the Android Market to an Android phone or tablet you are prompted to read what data the app you want to install requires from the user's phone or tablet. The screenshot in this post says it all.

I've downloaded dozens of Android apps, all with varying levels of permission, including some that want access to a dozen control points on the phone. You should read every one before you agree to install. I do, and it's comforting that Google cares.

All this to say Apple's trouble is ironic. For a company renowned for its sometimes inconsistent but Draconian App Store controls, Apple whiiffed on this one.

And this B.S. that dozens of third-party app developers do it as an accepted practice feels like old-school cronyism, the kind only the likes of investors in those companies can get behind.

Android, usually the whipping poster child for privacy tirades (deservedly so after Google Buzz and WiSpy), gets to burnish its privacy record. At least until the next big privacy issue, or until its gets sued for antitrust violations. Or both.

Google: Enjoy this while it lasts.

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