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Law suit goes after Apple for allowing apps to pass on personal information

by Phil Hornshaw

The security of personal information used by apps has been a bit of a gray area over the last two years. As smartphone apps pick up steam, more scrutiny is put on the security of all of the important personal information you put on your device. While Apple (AAPL) has always claimed that it screens apps to make sure they’re not doing anything untoward with your information, a new lawsuit suggests that’s not the case.

According to a report from Bloomberg, the suit claims Apple has incorporated software devices into its iPhones and iPads that track user information about app use and disseminate it to advertisers. According to the suit, the information includes what apps are downloaded, how long they’re used, and how frequently they’re accessed.

The complaint also mentions that apps themselves can sell personal information from the users accessing them to advertisers, without the knowledge of the user. The suit cites information like age, location, gender, income level, political views, sexual orientation and ethnicity.

There has also been a real possibility that apps do more than they say, but some of the apps named in the complaint are big-name free downloads from services including Pandora, Dictionary.com and The Weather Channel. The makers of those apps and others are named as defendants along with Apple.

For its part, Apple claims it screens all apps that appear in its App Store. But let’s face it -- one wonders how intense the process could possibly be, given some of the goofy and terrible apps in the marketplace and the volume of apps appearing in the store. And even if the process were more stringent, that definitely doesn’t mean Apple would have a fool-proof means of screening out apps with potentially malicious code hidden within them.

If it gains class action status, the suit could potentially be huge. It names anyone who downloaded an app from December 2008 to last week as a possible complainant, which is basically every iPhone and iPad owner.

How the case plays out could also have a big effect on the app market and what the makers of those apps, and the people selling them, are responsible for. There are 500,000 apps in the iTunes App Store right now, but after a precedent is set in this case (if it ever goes that far), that number could dwindle significantly as the cost to Apple to screen them goes up.

That’s still a long way off, though. Don’t expect this case to have much impact on whatever goes on with the iPad 2, new iPhones, or anything else in the (possibly) near future.