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Nielsen's New Consumer App Is Really a Market Research Tool [Updated]

Company should be more upfront about its purpose, says privacy advocate

Photo: Getty Images

Nielsen's new "topten" app seems harmless enough: offer consumers a quick and easy way to find out the most popular TV shows, books, songs, video games, movies and more. You know, the kind of rankings found in publications like Entertainment Weekly or the local newspaper.

But in Washington, privacy hawks are cringing, saying Nielsen isn't coming clean about what they say is the underlying purpose of the app: to collect more consumer information for the research it sell advertisers, agencies and the media.

"It appears Nielsen has created a data-gathering back door that is really designed to bolster the information it collects on consumer behavior," said Jeff Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy. "The Nielsen app is deceptive because, as the company says way down in its privacy policy (if you find it) that 'we use the information we collect to create a variety of research insights for our clients.'"

Is Nielsen's app really a wolf in sheep's clothing?

In its statement, Nielsen plays up its pitch to consumers as a "personalized consumer trends application." The company is even going on a 10-day city bus tour to universities to plug the app. The release says nothing about collecting data for market research.

When asked about data collection, a Nielsen representative continued the consumer pitch, saying the company's primary motivation for developing the app was "to reach consumers in new ways, as well as in a way that recognizes the move to mobile devices."

Nielsen insists its app is a straightforward effort. "There is nothing deceptive about a privacy policy that requires user consent before registering an account," the company said. 

Granted, sharing information is voluntary because consumers can use the app without entering in any personal information. But it's also clear that users may hardly see the grayed-out guest option when the "sign up" to create an account is a very prominent electric blue. Plus, users are encouraged throughout the app to "create an account" because it will allow them to "personalize the experience."

Users that create an account permit Nielsen to collect a user name, email, age, gender, zip code, and income (optional). If users elect, they can also link the app to their Facebook or Twitter account (Nielsen has data partnerships with both), which will give Nielsen additional information from the social sites. The company will also link the data it gets with other sources.

As Nielsen's privacy policy explains, for users that create an account, Nielsen collects data in three ways: "information you give us;" "information through your use of the application on the device;" and "information we get from other sources."

Finally, Nielsen offers in its privacy policy the option to contact the company to see the personal identifying information the company holds on the user, and the opportunity to correct or update it.

So while it's true that Nielsen has probably dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's in its privacy policy, it's also true that Nielsen is promoting its app not as a market research tool, but as a consumer entertainment tool, tucking away how it collects and shares data inside its privacy policy.

"The Federal Trade Commission needs to review this Nielsen app and ensure consumer privacy is protected," Chester said. "They should insist Nielsen change the description of its app from 'entertainment' to 'consumer market research.' The company should show greater corporate responsibility and make its app's real use as a measurement tool for making money front and center."
 

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