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What Does the Public’s Uncontrollable App-etite Mean to You?

By Carl Weiss

“There’s an app for that.” How many times have we all heard that phrase during the past couple of years? Allow me to put it into better perspective for you. During the last week of 2011, 1.2 billion apps were downloaded, with 242 million apps being downloaded on Christmas day alone. While that number may seem staggering, it is even more so when one considers that less than 11 billion apps were downloaded in all of 2010. Add to that the fact that it is predicted that the number of mobile apps offered by companies will increase by a factor of 10 in 2012, and it is clear that the public’s App-etite is clearly uncontrollable.
FACT: As of December 2011, there were nearly 1 million applications available to the public, with nearly 2,000 new apps being published on a daily basis.

While some apps are pay to play, where consumers are charged a few dollars to download and use them, a vast number of them are given away for free. ..or, are they? While an app may be free to download, that doesn’t mean the app developer isn’t looking to cash in.

facebook (Photo credit: sitmonkeysupreme)

For example: A recent Wall Street Journal article that examined 100 of the most popular Facebook apps found that some apps seek not only the email addresses, current location and sexual preference of users, but also of their Facebook friends. One Yahoo service powered by Facebook requests access to a person's religious and political leanings as a condition for using it. The popular Skype service for making online phone calls seeks the Facebook photos and birthdays of its users and their friends.

What the article didn’t reveal is that the WSJ isn’t immune from this phenomenon, since its own app, WSJ Social, collects data from its subscribers, including profile information, email address and the ability to post an update whenever a subscriber reads an article.

While you may recall the recent firestorm raged over Google’s new privacy policy, no one seemed to mind that other search engines, social networks, affiliate marketers and app purveyors were busy at work collecting, analyzing and selling our personal information as well. Perhaps the reason that so many journalists were asleep at the switch with regards to sweeping changes taking place in cyberspace is due to the fact that until recently the ability to collect and control vast amounts of personal information about every man, woman and child online was a non-starter. Of course, this was in a time before most people were wired to the web 24/7 via a host of devices capable of transmitting information at will.

Let’s face it, capitalizing on personal data has never been easier or more lucrative. Facebook, which is slated to go public in May to the tune of $100 billion or more, is hip deep in turning personal data into gold. When it comes to collecting personal information, social networks in general and Facebook in particular are king. From the get go when you sign up for a social network, you are asked a myriad of questions concerning everything from your age and sex, to likes, dislikes, movies and books you have seen and read, photos, videos and much more. Then you are encouraged to share even more personal information on a daily basis about yourself and your friends. Last but not least, you are expected to willingly proselytize the network to friends and family. That in effect is the very essence of social networking. It is also the source of the network’s revenue, since their profits are derived chiefly via advertising.

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With the growth of mobile marketing, it wasn’t long before social networks began to

break out of the box and onto our phones. Getting back to the Wall Street Journal’s examination of the 100 most popular Facebook apps, “ The app that sought the widest array of personal information of the 100 examined, "MyPad for iPad," has a two-paragraph privacy policy that says it is "adding Privacy settings shortly." Privacy policies that describe how they collect, use and share data are required by Facebook. The app maker couldn't be reached for comment.”

The article goes on to state that, “By virtue of its size and user base of 800-million-plus people, Facebook is at the heart of the personal data economy. Popular apps can quickly go "viral" there and gain millions of users — but can also flame out just as quickly. This explains why some apps seek to cash in by gathering as much data as possible and hoping to find ways to make money from it.”

While apps are technically required to ask permission to access uses Facebook data, the way in which the permission is couched, namely in a way that would make the app virtually non-functioning if you deny access, makes it a sure bet that users will almost always grant access. One of the items that the app makers don’t tell the public is the fact that while Facebook tries to restrict app makers from sharing the data collected with any company that hasn’t signed an agreement with Facebook, this isn’t always the case. 
“Data obtained from PrivacyChoice show that several dozen widely used apps are using unapproved companies, most notably Google, the biggest online ad company. That means app users can be tracked within their apps by Google and others. Google said advertisers using its DoubleClick ad services agree to terms that prohibit the collection of any personally identifiable information.”

While the WSJ article concerned itself with Facebook apps, if the world’s largest social network and the world’s largest search engine are not above breaching each other’s privacy policies, what is the likelihood that many of their smaller and hungrier brethren in the world of online advertising are above bending the rules?
Multinational corporations for one have seen the light when it comes to the advantages of apps.  The popularity of mobile apps is now seen as a major player in driving revenues.  Given the fact that within two years more people will be surfing the web via mobile device rather than PC, is it any wonder that companies large and small see mobile marketing as their ticket to easy money, especially since most people haven’t got a clue as to how to prevent their personal data from being mined.

Hey, I’ll bet there’s an app for that!

Carl Weiss is president of W Squared Media Group and co-host of the weekly online radio show Working the Web to Win.  Since 1995, he has helped hundreds of businesses improve their visibility and results online. 

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