Given the kerfuffle over the recent admissions by Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Path and others that they downloaded personal information and/or uploaded contacts through, among other things, Apps on users’ iPhones, it was inevitable that someone would ask whether there might be trade secrets that could be misappropriated as well. Larry Magid recently wrote a post, “Privacy, Safety & Trade Secrets at Risk in Latest Apple App Flap,” for Forbes posing that very question.
For the digitally unsavvy who missed last week’s news, Larry’s article presents a nice summary: On February 8th, a developer discovered that his “entire address book (including full names, emails and phone numbers) was being sent as a list to Path.” Path, an app that allows people to create and share their personal journals, quickly admitted it, apologized, and issued a new version that sought permission before uploading user data. Other companies, including Foursquare, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Voxer, later came forward and admitted uploading user data.
Larry’s post expresses concern that given the sheer number of Apps that now exist (over 500,00 for the iPhone and 400,000 for the Droid), it is conceivable that a developer with less-than-pure intentions (other than, of course, simply harvesting the data of its users) could use the interface with the iPhone or Droid to do so. Larry expresses concern that a list of a user’s contacts could confer some form of competitive advantage.
While there may be some legitimate concerns on the privacy front about these developments, I don’t think companies have much to worry about on the trade secrets front. The vast majority of users would face, at worst, disclosure of their contact information, which would exist in a fairly rudimentary form (email addresses, phone numbers) and which in some instances would already be available to the public (Twitter, for example, generally lists a user’s followers and the other users that he/she is following). Moreover, one would presume that a user would tread carefully with an App that he perceives competes with him or his employer; in fact, it would be tough to defend a trade secret claim where that information was shared with a competitor with no safeguards.
While it is possible, given the growing universe of Apps and the blurring of personal and professional lives on smartphones, that some form of trade secret could be uploaded or taken, it is tough for me to envision such a situation. And since contact information and customer lists are generally perceived as the red-headed stepchildren of the trade secret world, under these circumstances it would be tough to argue for any trade secret protection.