Mobile developer contests seeks to boost privacy

Branches of the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations are launching on Friday the 2011 Develop for Privacy Challenge, a competition for mobile application developers to address privacy concerns about mobile phones and other portable devices.

The contest is intended to encourage developers to build open source tools that help mobile device users understand and address privacy threats. “We created the Develop for Privacy Challenge to call upon application developers to show that privacy doesn’t need to be an afterthought in new technologies,” said Brian Alseth, technology and liberty director at the ACLU of Washington, in a statement. “Rather, privacy can and should be a fundamental building block.”

Contest submissions will be received at the Develop for Privacy Web site until May 31, 2011. A contest winner will be announced in August at an event in Las Vegas coinciding with Defcon and Black Hat security conferences. Whoever makes the best overall submission will be given the opportunity to discuss the application with the audience and judges at the ceremony. The winning submission will be promoted by the partner organizations for maximum distribution, use, and impact. There is currently no cash prize specified, but organizers may provide additional awards or recognition at their discretion.

Contest sponsors stressed the changing nature of mobile communications and how privacy regulations have not kept abreast of the changes. By the end of this year, the majority of phones sold in the U.S. likely will be smart phones that allow users to pull up maps, browse the Internet, check email and allow other uses, sponsors of the competition said. Already, about 50 million Americans carry these devices.

The sponsors noted that smart phones are able to collect and share data that can paint a detailed picture about someone’s life, such as location and what they search for online. But federal law governing electronic privacy, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, is outdated, having passed in 1986 long before smart phones or the Internet as now known existed.

Applications will be judged by a panel of privacy and technology experts, including Jacob Appelbaum of the Tor Project, Caspar Bowden of Microsoft, and Jules Polonetsky of the Future of Privacy Forum. Criteria for judging include the seriousness of the privacy issue addressed by the application, effectiveness, originality, portability, performance, and quality of both source code and user documentation.

In addition to the ACLU of Washington, contest sponsors also include the ACLU of Northern California and the Tor Project, with the assistance of Ontario’s information and privacy commissioner’s office. Tor is an effort to improve privacy and security on the Internet.

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