Last week news broke that the popular photo-based social networking app Path was uploading and storing users’ iPhone address books on their servers, in apparent violation of Apple’s development guidelines. Path set a land speed record for corporate response, apologizing and issuing an update to the iOS version of Path that allowed users to opt out of contact collection (a feature that had apparently been present in the Android version for awhile).
In the aftermath of the discovery about Path it has come to light that several other iOS apps store and transmit user data. Yesterday Forbes reported on a study from last year which found that while most apps respected user privacy, more than half leaked an iPhone’s unique device ID to third parties. To top things off, this morning we brought you news that Twitter’s iOS app also collects users’ contact lists.
Now it seems the scandal has caught the attention of two U.S. Congressmen. Congressmen Henry Waxman, House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman, and G.K. Butterfield, Commerce Manufacturing and Trade Subcommittee Chair, sent a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook today. The letter, which was also sent to Path CEO Dave Morin, poses a series of questions about the ability of apps to access private user data. The questions touch on issues and processes that Apple has historically been reluctant to allow into the light of day, including the app approval process. The questions also deal with whether a user’s address book constitutes user data, and how many apps in the App Store store and transmit user data. The letter is included in full below.
February 15, 2012
Mr. Tim Cook
Chief Executive Officer, Apple Inc.
1 Infinite Loop
Cupertino, CA 95014
Dear Mr. Cook:
Last week, independent iOS app developer Arun Thampi blogged about his discovery that the social networking app “Path” was accessing and collecting the contents of his iPhone address book without ever having asked for his consent. The information taken without his permission – or that of the individual contacts who own that information – included full names, phone numbers, and email addresses. Following media coverage of Mr. Thampi’s discovery, Path’s Co-Founder and CEO Dave Morin quickly apologized, promised to delete from Path’s servers all data it had taken from its users’ address books, and announced the release of a new version of Path that would prompt users to opt in to sharing their address book contacts.
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.
The data management section of your iOS developer website states: “iOS has a comprehensive collection of tools and frameworks for storing, accessing, and sharing data. . . . iOS apps even have access to a device’s global data such as contacts in the Address Book, and photos in the Photo Library.” The app store review guidelines section states: “We review every app on the App Store based on a set of technical, content, and design criteria. This review criteria is now available to you in the App Store Review Guidelines.” This same section indicates that the guidelines are available only to registered members of the iOS Developer Program. However, tech blogs following the Path controversy indicate that the iOS App Guidelines require apps to get a user’s permission before “transmit[ting] data about a user”.
In spite of this guidance, claims have been made that “there’s a quiet understanding among many iOS app developers that it is acceptable to send a user’s entire address book, without their permission, to remote servers and then store it for future reference. It’s common practice, and many companies likely have your address book stored in their database.” One blogger claims to have conducted a survey of developers of popular iOS apps and found that 13 of 15 had a “contacts database with millions of records” – with one claiming to have a database containing “Mark Zuckerberg's cell phone number, Larry Ellison’s home phone number and Bill Gates’ cell phone number.”
The fact that the previous version of Path was able to gain approval for distribution through the Apple iTunes Store despite taking the contents of users’ address books without their permission suggests that there could be some truth to these claims. To more fully understand and assess these claims, we are requesting that you respond to the following questions:
1. Please describe all iOS App Guidelines that concern criteria related to the privacy and security of data that will be accessed or transmitted by an app.
2. Please describe how you determine whether an app meets those criteria.
3. What data do you consider to be “data about a user” that is subject to the requirement that the app obtain the user’s consent before it is transmitted?
4. To the extent not addressed in the response to question 2, please describe how you determine whether an app will transmit “data about a user” and whether the consent requirement has been met.
5. How many iOS apps in the U.S. iTunes Store transmit “data about a user”?
6. Do you consider the contents of the address book to be “data about a user”?
7. Do you consider the contents of the address book to be data of the contact? If not, please explain why not. Please explain how you protect the privacy and security interests of that contact in his or her information.
8. How many iOS apps in the U.S. iTunes Store transmit information from the address book? How many of those ask for the user’s consent before transmitting their contacts’ information?
9. You have built into your devices the ability to turn off in one place the transmission of location information entirely or on an app-by-app basis. Please explain why you have not done the same for address book information.
Please provide the information requested no later than February 29, 2012. If you have any questions regarding this request, you can contact Felipe Mendoza with the Energy and Commerce Committee Staff at 202-226-3400.
Henry A. Waxman
Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade
cc: Dave Morin
Path, Co-Founder and CEO
Apple wasted no time in responding to the letter. In a statement to AllThingsD, Apple said that “Apps that collect or transmit a user’s contact data without their prior permission are in violation of our guidelines,” and that in the future, “any app wishing to access contact data will require explicit user approval in a future software release.”
As it happens, Apple has a new iOS release in the works now: iOS 5.1 will most likely launch with the iPad 3 next month. Now it will almost certainly include a system setting allowing users to turn off address book access system wide, or app-by-app, just as with location services.