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Do You Agree to the Terms and Conditions?

Mobile devices and the tipping point of informed consent

Sometimes I wonder if anyone, in the entire history of computing, has every bothered to read and consider the contents of a typical End User License Agreement (EULA). Some Product Manager, I suppose (though truthfully, I’m not even sure of this one).

The EULA, however, is important. It’s the foundation of an important consent ceremony that ends with only one effective choice: pressing OK. This much-maligned step in every software installation is the only real binding between an end user and a provider of software. Out of this agreement emerges a contract between these two parties, and it is this contact that serves as a legal framework for interpretation should any issues arise in the relationship.

handshakeTherein lies the rub, as the emphasis in a EULA—as in so much of contract law—is on legal formalism at the expense of end user understanding. These priorities are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but as any lawyer will tell you, it’s a lot more work to make them co-exist on more of less equal footing.

Mobile devices, however, may provide the forcing function that brings change into this otherwise moribund corner of the software industry. Mobility is hot right now, and its demanding that we rethink process and technology all over business. These new demands are going to extend to the traditional EULA, and the result could be good for everyone.

Case in point: the New York Times reported recently on a study conducted by the FTC examining privacy in mobile apps for children. The researchers found that parents were not being adequately informed about what private information was being collected and the extent to which it could be shared. Furthermore, many mobile app developers are channeling data into just a few commercial analytics vendors. While this may not sound like too big a deal, it turns out that in some cases these data are tagged with unique device identifiers. This means that providers can potentially track behavior across multiple apps, giving them unprecedented visibility into the online habits of our children.

Kid and privacy are a lightening rod for controversy, but the study really speaks to a much greater problem in the mobile app industry. Just the previous week, the State of California launched a suit against Delta Airlines alleging the company failed to include a privacy policy in its mobile app, placing it in violation of that state’s 2004 privacy law.

You could argue that there is nothing new about this problem. Desktop applications have the same capacity for collecting information and so pose similar threats to our privacy. The difference is mostly the devil we know. After years of reading about the appalling threats to our privacy on the Internet, we have come to expect these shenanigans and approach the conventional web guarded and wary. Or we don’t care (see Facebook).

But the phone, well the phone is just… different.  A desktop—or even our mobile laptop—just isn’t as ubiquitous a part of our lives as our phone. The phone goes with us everywhere, which makes it both a triumph of technology and a tremendous potential threat to our privacy.

The problem with the phone is that it is the consumer device that isn’t. Apple crossed a chasm with the iPhone, taking the mobile device from constrained (like a blender) to extensible (like a Lego set) without breaking the consumer-orientation of the device. This was a real tour de force—but one with repercussions both good and bad.

The good stuff we live every day—we get to carefully curate our apps to make the phone our own. I can’t imagine traveling without my phone in my pocket. The bad part is we haven’t necessarily recognized the privacy implications of our own actions. Nobody expects to be betrayed by their constant companion, but it is this constant companion that poses the greatest threat to our security.

The good news is that the very characteristics that make mobile so popular also promise to bring much needed transparency to the user/app/provider relationship. Consumer-orientation plus small form factor equal a revolution in privacy and security.

Mobile devices tap into a market so vast it dwarfs the one addressed by the humble PC. And this is the group for which consumer protection laws were designed. And as we’ve seen in the Delta Airlines case above, the state’s have a lever, and apparently they aren’t afraid to use it.

But legislation is only part of the answer to reconcile the dueling priorities of privacy and consent. The other element working in favour of change is size, and small is definitely better here. The multi-page contract just isn’t going to play well on the 4″ screen. What consumer’s need is a message that is simple, clear, and understandable. Fortunately, we can look to the web for inspiration on how to do this right.

One of the reasons I get excited about the rise of OAuth is because it represents much more than yet another security token (God knows we have enough of those already). OAuth is really about granting consent. It doesn’t try to say anything about the nature of that consent; but it does put in the framework to make consent practical.

Coincident with the rise of OAuth on the Web is a movement to make the terms of consent more transparent. This needs to continue as the process moves to the restricted form factor of the mobile phone. I have no doubt that left to their own devices, most developers would take the easy route out and reduce mobile consent to a hyperlink pointing to pages of boilerplate legalese and an OK button. But add in some regulatory expectations of reasonable disclosure, and I can see a better future of clear and simple agreements that flourish first on mobile devices, but extend to all software.

Here at Layer 7 we are deeply interested in technologies like OAuth, and the role these play in a changing computer landscape. We are also spending lots of time working on mobile, because more than anything mobile solutions are driving uptake around APIs. When we built our mobile application gateway, we made sure this solution made OAuth simple to deploy, and simple to customize. This way, important steps like consent ceremonies can be made clear, unambiguous, and most important, compliant with the law.

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More Stories By Scott Morrison

K. Scott Morrison is the Chief Technology Officer and Chief Architect at Layer 7 Technologies, where he is leading a team developing the next generation of security infrastructure for cloud computing and SOA. An architect and developer of highly scalable, enterprise systems for over 20 years, Scott has extensive experience across industry sectors as diverse as health, travel and transportation, and financial services. He has been a Director of Architecture and Technology at Infowave Software, a leading maker of wireless security and acceleration software for mobile devices, and was a senior architect at IBM. Before shifting to the private sector, Scott was with the world-renowned medical research program of the University of British Columbia, studying neurodegenerative disorders using medical imaging technology.

Scott is a dynamic, entertaining and highly sought-after speaker. His quotes appear regularly in the media, from the New York Times, to the Huffington Post and the Register. Scott has published over 50 book chapters, magazine articles, and papers in medical, physics, and engineering journals. His work has been acknowledged in the New England Journal of Medicine, and he has published in journals as diverse as the IEEE Transactions on Nuclear Science, the Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow, and Neurology. He is the co-author of the graduate text Cloud Computing, Principles, Systems and Applications published by Springer, and is on the editorial board of Springer’s new Journal of Cloud Computing Advances, Systems and Applications (JoCCASA). He co-authored both Java Web Services Unleashed and Professional JMS. Scott is an editor of the WS-I Basic Security Profile (BSP), and is co-author of the original WS-Federation specification. He is a recent co-author of the Cloud Security Alliance’s Security Guidance for Critical Areas of Focus in Cloud Computing, and an author of that organization’s Top Threats to Cloud Computing research. Scott was recently a featured speaker for the Privacy Commission of Canada’s public consultation into the privacy implications of cloud computing. He has even lent his expertise to the film and television industry, consulting on a number of features including the X-Files. Scott’s current interests are in cloud computing, Web services security, enterprise architecture and secure mobile computing—and of course, his wife and two great kids.

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