FTC targets mobile text messaging, security concerns

Looking to stay on top of rapidly developing security and privacy challenges in the mobile communications arena, the Federal Trade Commission this week released the results of a recent town hall meeting it held to help it grasp everything from open source software to data protection.   

The meeting, called "Beyond Voice: Mapping the Mobile Marketplace," included a substantial cross-section of interested experts from companies and academia spoke, including Google, Verizon, Yahoo, the CTIA, AT&T, Sprint, Better Business Bureau, VMware and the University of Michigan.

At the meeting the CTIA said there are currently 257 million US mobile subscribers, which translates into a penetration rate of more than 80% of the population. Recent trends suggest that, in the near future, consumers will more often access the Internet from mobile devices than from PCs. The most notable characteristic of the market is the interest of mobile users in personalizing their mobile devices and using them for self-expression.

A couple key observations:

Open source: Rich Miner of Google said it is nearly impossible for software developers to get their applications on a mobile handset today. Miner said that carriers and handset manufacturers impose complex procedures for placing applications on handsets. Thus, most mobile phones are described as having a "closed" platform. Miner claimed that closed platforms can stifle innovation. Miner added that the cost of the software that is incorporated into mobile handsets has been rising, thus keeping the cost of the handsets high. Miner recommended that manufacturers reduce software costs by making software applications open source.

Protection: The Center for Democracy and Technology says that location information be classified as sensitive data that receive special protection. By way of example, the CDT stated that unauthorized access to a consumer's location information may reveal potentially sensitive information, such as the consumer's visit to a medical clinic or a government building. Other panelists similarly underscored the issue of consumers' control over the use and disclosure of their location information by pointing out that consumers' inability to control access to the information could lead to dangers like a stalker accessing and using the information, the FTC said.

In the end the FTC came up with three areas it said it will concentrate on for now:

Complaints:  As to cost disclosures for mobile services, most complaints to state regulatory utilities commissioners involve inadequate disclosures. The FTC said it will continue to monitor cost disclosures and bring law enforcement actions as appropriate. The FTC will also work with industry on improving its self-regulatory enforcement.

Unwanted messages:  The FTC and its law enforcement partners should continue to monitor the impact on consumers of unwanted mobile text messages, malware, and spyware, and take law enforcement action as needed. Currently, wireless carriers block hundreds of millions of unsolicited text messages every month. The cost to the carriers is substantial, but the cost to consumers of receiving voluminous amounts of unwanted text messages would be far greater. Although spyware and malware have not yet emerged as a significant problem on mobile devices, that situation can change as consumers increasingly use mobile devices for a wide variety of applications, including Internet access. Therefore, the FTC encourages stakeholders to continue developing strategies that prevent or minimize the spread of spam, spyware, and malware on consumers' mobile devices.

Privacy: The increasing use of smartphones to access the mobile web presents unique privacy challenges, especially regarding children. Accordingly, the FTC will expedite the regulatory review of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule to determine whether the rule should in any way be modified to address changes in the mobile marketplace. This review, originally set for 2015, instead will commence in 2010, and will provide an opportunity for extensive public comment.

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