Secretly tethered to the cloud

Thee doesn't seem to be a place to report a concern about an application on the iTunes music store. So I am posting my concerns here.

I downloaded Lemonade Tycoon last night for my iPhone. I'm very new to the App Store and I was surprised to find so many free applications.

Apple vets all the applications before putting them on the store. The vetting process is, by all accounts, very tough and developers complain a lot about it. But I guess it's important to make sure that applications don't contain anything malicious. After all, an iPhone virus sweeps around the globe story would be too juicy for the world's media outlets to resist.

I think Apple has missed something though and I don't think the vetting process is strict enough. I downloaded a translation application last night. The free version of this program connects to a server to do the translation online. The paid version has off line translation built in in to the app. The iPhone is clever enough to send data to and from the web across any WiFi network it is connected to, in preference to the 3G phone network. But if it's not connected via WiFi then it uses the phone network for the data transmission. In some markets users are very sensitive to how much data they transmit across the phone network because their bundled data allowance is small. In Ireland it's only 1Gb. I really needed to know that this application was working online. And it didn't seem to be very obvious. As it happened I was at home. But if I was on the bus while I was checking it out, I'd have been very annoyed to find out when my mobile bill arrived that I had been paying for the privilege.

Apple needs to work on some sort of labelling scheme to make it clear when an application is online, offline, or both. Obviously, when I check the weather or the newspaper I am aware that this information is online and doesn't live inside my phone. But applications like this are actually available in two versions, so my expectations could easily have been wide of the mark.

Which brings me to Lemonade Tycoon. This is a repackaged version of a very old PC game. It's actually a great little game and it's free. Bizarrely, however, the game asked me for my sex and my age group. This information had no bearing on how the game was played. Was this information relayed back to EA Games? Did my phone send information about how long I played for? If so this raises two very important issues.

Firstly I had no expectation that an application such as this would use some of my monthly data allowance. If it does it should be clearly labelled as such.

Secondly and more importantly this is the serious privacy issue. If an application is going to send back information about users to the developer, then the user should be advised of this up front. In Europe we have laws about that kind of thing. This is all the more worrying because my iPhone is not even remotely anonymous. Since the application was purchased with my iTunes account and the phone has a telephone number that identifies me, the potential privacy risk is much greater than that of a regular web browser. Any data collected is easily connected to me, my credit card, and my phone number.

If this sort of data gathering is allowed to continue unchecked then the handy shopping list application I download some day might end up relaying details of all my purchases to the application developers who might later use it for purposes I had never agreed to.

Apple had best take care. If users discover to their horror that the hours of game play on the commute to work, resulted in hours of expensive data transmission the iPhone's halo may become tarnished. And iPhone used to spy on customers headlines might prove irresistible too.

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