The address books fiasco finally comes to an end as Apple says it will make developers ask for permission first

Apple says it will require developers to ask for permission first before they access a user’s address book.

It’s the culmination of a very strange weeklong media blowout that started when a Singapore-based developer discovered that Path was uploading personal contact information from users’ address books without their knowledge. Path apologized and said it would delete all of the user data it had collected this way. That spiraled into a discussion in The New York Times about whether Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have become too cavalier about privacy, by pushing the envelope first and then asking for forgiveness later.

That then escalated into a tangentially related discussion of the flaws in tech media as Path investors rushed to defend the company. Yesterday evening, both VentureBeat and the Verge returned to the core issue by looking at other apps like Foursquare and Twitter that were also sending address book information to their servers. This morning, House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman and Commerce Manufacturing and Trade Subcommittee Chair G.K. Butterfield sent a letter to Apple asking the company to explain the situation.

Apple finally responded today in an interview with AllThingsD, saying that it would change its policy around address book access:

“Apps that collect or transmit a user’s contact data without their prior permission are in violation of our guidelines*,” Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr told AllThingsD. “We’re working to make this even better for our customers, and as we have done with location services, any app wishing to access contact data will require explicit user approval in a future software release.”

The way this entire story played out was pretty odd. Developers have long had access to address books on iOS and if they do store data, it’s usually to suggest friends when new users come on board. While the intentions are usually harmless, it is true that a malicious developer could do much worse with this data access.

However, hashing has been a fairly well-known tactic to preserve user privacy while making it easy to suggest friendships. Beluga, the group messaging startup Facebook acquired last year, hashed contact lists. To hash a contact, the developer assigns a unique code to each name and stores that instead of the original information. When it scans an address book and finds other names that produce the same hash code, the app can recommend a friend connection. It seems Path, whose chief executive was one of the key early Facebook employees that built out the company’s platform, was merely careless in not hashing contact information.

There have been many privacy flaws in the design of the iOS platform over the years, including the use of UDIDs. The address books issue has existed for years, and yet it was only until one tiny blog post from a single developer emerged, that a firestorm finally ensnared Congress and Apple.

Strange times, indeed.

Here’s the House committee letter to Apple:

Mr. Tim Cook
Chief Executive Officer, Apple Inc.
1 Infinite Loop
Cupertino, CA 95014

Dear Mr. Cook:
Last week, independent iOS app developer Arun Thampi blogged about his discovery that the social networking app “Path” was accessing and collecting the contents of his iPhone address book without ever having asked for his consent.[1] The information taken without his permission — or that of the individual contacts who own that information — included full names, phone numbers, and email addresses.[2] Following media coverage of Mr. Thampi’s discovery, Path’s Co-Founder and CEO Dave Morin quickly apologized, promised to delete from Path’s servers all data it had taken from its users’ address books, and announced the release of a new version of Path that would prompt users to opt in to sharing their address book contacts.[3]

This incident raises questions about whether Apple’s iOS app developer policies and practices may fall short when it comes to protecting the information of iPhone users and their contacts.
The data management section of your iOS developer website states: “iOS has a comprehensive collection of tools and frameworks for storing, accessing, and sharing data. … iOS apps even have access to a device’s global data such as contacts in the Address Book, and photos in the Photo Library.”[4] The app store review guidelines section states: “We review every app on the App Store based on a set of technical, content, and design criteria. This review criteria is now available to you in the App Store Review Guidelines.”[5] This same section indicates that the guidelines are available only to registered members of the iOS Developer Program.[6] However, tech blogs following the Path controversy indicate that the iOS App Guidelines require apps to get a user’s permission before “transmit[ting] data about a user”.[7]

In spite of this guidance, claims have been made that “there’s a quiet understanding among many iOS app developers that it is acceptable to send a user’s entire address book, without their permission, to remote servers and then store it for future reference. It’s common practice, and many companies likely have your address book stored in their database.”[8] One blogger claims to have conducted a survey of developers of popular iOS apps and found that 13 of 15 had a “contacts database with millions of records” — with one claiming to have a database containing “Mark Zuckerberg’s cell phone number, Larry Ellison’s home phone number and Bill Gates’ cell phone number.”[9]

The fact that the previous version of Path was able to gain approval for distribution through the Apple iTunes Store despite taking the contents of users’ address books without their permission suggests that there could be some truth to these claims. To more fully understand and assess these claims, we are requesting that you respond to the following questions:

– Please describe all iOS App Guidelines that concern criteria related to the privacy and security of data that will be accessed or transmitted by an app.
– Please describe how you determine whether an app meets those criteria.
– What data do you consider to be “data about a user” that is subject to the requirement that the app obtain the user’s consent before it is transmitted?
– To the extent not addressed in the response to question 2, please describe how you determine whether an app will transmit “data about a user” and whether the consent requirement has been met.
– How many iOS apps in the U.S. iTunes Store transmit “data about a user”?
– Do you consider the contents of the address book to be “data about a user”?
– Do you consider the contents of the address book to be data of the contact? If not, please explain why not. Please explain how you protect the privacy and security interests of that contact in his or her information.
– How many iOS apps in the U.S. iTunes Store transmit information from the address book? How many of those ask for the user’s consent before transmitting their contacts’ information?
– You have built into your devices the ability to turn off in one place the transmission of location information entirely or on an app-by-app basis. Please explain why you have not done the same for address book information.

Please provide the information requested no later than February 29, 2012. If you have any questions regarding this request, you can contact Felipe Mendoza with the Energy and Commerce Committee Staff at 202-226-3400.

Henry A. Waxman, Ranking Member
G.K. Butterfield, Ranking Member
Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade