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Resources: Top 5 Privacy Laws for Software Developers
Posted By: Tim Bukher | Posted On: Oct 26, 2013

Privacy LawsOnline and smartphone applications are a growing industry where relevant laws are having a tough time catching up with innovation. Whether it's a new form of cloud computing or a means of sharing videos with other like-minded individuals, application providers are constantly coming up with new ways for people to communicate. At the same time, they are stumbling over potential privacy trip wires which are liable to get them sued:

  1. The Wiretap Act (18 USC § 2510 et seq): Users have a right of privacy for contents of telephone conversations, telegraph messages, or electronic data by wire -- including emails. This Act permits users to recover damages against entities that intercept messages and electronic communications in violation of the Act. Applications that function by processing such communications, such as messaging software, must necessarily intercept and store processed communications for some period of time. Messaging applications should require a user's permission to store such comminications in their Terms of Use.

  2. Video Privacy Act (18 USC §2710): Records of sales or rentals of video tapes are confidential. As with all laws, Courts can be convinced to extend "old language" to protect new technologies (e.g., licenses to stream content could potentially fall under this law). Applications that stream entertainment content must be careful to provide a privacy framework whereby records of the content streamed by viewers remain confidential, or else require the user's permission to display such records.

  3. Stored Communications Act (18 USC § 2702): Content of e-mail in public systems are confidential. This law mainly applies to ISPs and has been found inapplicable in cases where the emails are stored on private systems such as private company servers. While there is still a question of what constitutes a "public system" under this law, courts are increasingly extending this act to include any messaging services, such as public forums, that allow users to join indiscriminately.

  4. Right to Financial Privacy Act (12 USC §3401 et seq.): Bank records are confidential. This one is a no brainer. However, applications with functionality similar to Mint should be careful to avoid exposure under this law.

  5. Interception of Radio Communications (47 USC §605): Radio messages are private. While this may seem, at first glance to be dated and irrelevant (who uses radio transmissions?), providers should, once again, be aware of the courts' tendency to modernize old laws. For example, use of word "radio" in 47 USCS § 605 includes television transmissions. Hoosier Home Theater, Inc. v Adkins, 595 F Supp 389 (SD Ind 1984).

This list is by no means exhaustive and does not even touch on the various state laws dealing with the right to privacy. As always, consultation with a qualified attorney is strongly urged.

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