[This is a guest post by attorney Caroline Belich. Caroline is a Chicago native, former Michigan State volleyball player, and recent admitee to the California bar with particular interest in the First Amendment.]
According to the Wall Street Journal and other sources, federal prosecutors in New Jersey are investigating whether certain mobile applications for smartphones have illegally obtained or transmitted information about their users. Part of the criminal investigation is to determine whether these app makers made appropriate disclosures to users about how and why their personal information is being used. The app makers subpoenaed include the popular online music service Pandora.
Examples of information disclosed by these app makers may include a user’s age, gender, location, and also unique identifiers for the phone. The information may then passed on to third parties and advertising networks. The problem is that users may be unaware that their information is being accessed by a smartphone app because a maker failed to notify them.
As a result, this failure to notify may violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (18 USC 1030). The CFAA is a federal statute that is often used against hackers. Applying this rationale here, federal prosecutors may argue that the app makers essentially hacked users cellphones.
However, some legal experts believe that criminal charges against the app makers are unlikely. Supporting this belief is the fact that many criminal charges against companies result in non-prosecution or deferred prosecution agreements in exchange for concessions of wrongdoing or monetary payments.
But while criminal charges are doubtful, civil lawsuits by users and causes of action brought by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) may not be. First, consumers may sue app makers for failure to notify under privacy rights claims. Second, the FTC could allege unfair and deceptive trade practices by makers for failure to inform users how their personal information is being employed. Recently, Google settled with the FTC regarding its social network, Buzz, where allegations were made about violations of users’ privacy.
So even if these criminal investigations do not come to fruition, at least the possibility is making the public aware of their rights involving smartphone products so that industry standards may be created or laws requiring notification may be made.