Is app development part of your business model or online marketing strategy? If so, it may represent an opportunity to acquire valuable information about your customers. But this comes with risks. Prudent data-mining can dramatically improve user experience and help you to better serve customers’ needs. But when app development leads to the company relying on this data too much, it can create backlash against the company as a whole.
It’s no surprise that people across the United States are becoming increasingly sensitive about the privacy of their online data. There is a nearly constant stream of stories about that data being misused or harvested in ways that are deceptive or secretive. Many of these concerns are focused on popular social media platforms like Facebook, but app development is starting to get more attention as a potential source of data leaks.
This week yielded one particularly lurid example. Business Insider was among the outlets to report on certain apps designed to help women track their menstrual cycles. Users and consumer advocates have discovered that highly sensitive information was collected and shared. In some cases, this included a record of when they last had sex.
The same story also highlighted the fact that there may be overlap between familiar issues with social media and the up-and-coming concerns of questionable app development. The data in question was shared with Facebook, and then both the social media network and the apps tried to pass the buck when the problem came to light.
One of the apps said it had halted the data collection by removing a Facebook Software Development Kit. Facebook said the specific data gathered by these apps is not supposed to be sent to the platform, and is removed once it’s discovered. But neither of these explanations are likely to put consumers’ minds at ease. Facebook may not suffer too much from the backlash, since it still has very few competitors and is arguably too big to fail. But the apps should probably expect to lose users permanently.
There’s a lesson in this for other companies that are looking at app development. As more people become aware of the privacy they’re asked to sacrifice by new apps, overreach becomes more risky. App development can follow different paths. It can demand numerous permissions from users or it can make do with what is necessary to let the app run properly. It can share the resulting stream of data widely, or it can focus on using it to improve the app’s performance for existing users.
It’s hard to deny that there are short-term benefits to the more intrusive approach. And distributors of an app may even turn a blind eye to it. This was the implication of another recent story, which explained that Apple had rolled back privacy rules for children’s apps in its store. App development professionals complained to the tech giant, and their voices overrode those of parents who were concerned about data collection and ads targeting their children.
But this certainly didn’t make the parents’ complaints go away. And it’s important to take note of that. Because if they come to believe that companies like Apple and Microsoft aren’t protecting them, it’s a safe bet that they’ll find a way to take out their anxieties on the owners of the apps themselves. It’s best for new app development to avoid this wherever possible. And where data-mining seems necessary or justified, it is essential for the developers to be clear with users about why.