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Gotcher Address Book!

Even though I installed the Path app and set up an account, I never really used it. It never really clicked with me; I really only signed up because many people I know were trying/using it. So it wasn’t anything close to a “hardship” for me to ask them to delete my account when it was revealed that they were uploading the contents of my address book to their servers. Still, I’m disappointed.

Last fall, we were in the crunch-time week for a client’s app before the iOS 5.0 submission deadline. I was profiling it in Instruments, trying to find where we could improve its launch-time performance, when I found a noticeable amount of time was spent in Address Book queries by a third-party video tracking library.

Not only was this behavior slowing down our launch, it was unexpected and—since it was a binary library without source code provided—we had no idea what it was doing with that information. A red flag was raised, and to my surprise the client even expressed willingness to cut the functionality until the questions could be answered.

As explained, the usage was almost clever: By adding a defined contact to your address book, you would unlock additional debug logging and reporting options for their SDK. They claimed that there were numerous applications already approved with this SDK, and I don’t feel the need to question their veracity. Most importantly, they offered a build without that functionality, provided it quickly, and that’s what shipped.

So it disappoints me that after my own personal experience of trying to keep code out of the Address Book, there are developers out there who apparently don’t think twice about slurping all of your contacts and sending them to their servers without your express permission.

This has happened before with Aurora Feint. It forever tainted my opinion of Open Feint, which came out of that. I had been under the impression that Apple was much more strict about this type of behavior—“chance of rejection” was one of the main reasons I brought attention to the library’s unexpected access. So I’m disappointed in Apple, too.

There have been calls for Apple to add required guards and notifications to the API’s access, similar to how Location Services is handled. That would probably be good, but at a certain point all the notifications just become “Grant Access?” alerts that users don’t think about. I think there’s a simpler way to do it, at least for a first attempt:

  1. When submitting an app to iTunes Connect, ask “Do you access and transmit Address Book data?” similar to the existing question about using encryption.

  2. Answering “yes” is a flag to the review team to verify that the developers have implemented their own reasonable opt-in mechanism, and maybe even a bit more scrutiny of their network traffic.

  3. If an app is found to be violating this, terminate the developer’s account.

Yes, I feel that violating this expectation after making it clear that you are expected to be transparent about using this kind of information is worthy of booting you out of the App Store.