Boosting Security in the Mobile-for-Good Space

Kiambiu 4It seems as if high-profile privacy breaches are everywhere in the news these days. Snapchat made headlines earlier this year when hackers downloaded the phone numbers and usernames for as many as 4.6 million users, and the most recent data suggests that Target’s December security lapse could affect up to one-third of the U.S. population.

With privacy issues still fresh in our minds, Deb Levine – founder and president of YTH, (which stands for youth+tech+health), the partner of choice for developing, evaluating and refining technology solutions that advance youth health and wellness, is bringing the conversation into another arena: mobile technology in the social good space. YTH has piloted dozens of mobile apps and text messaging services since its inception more than a decade ago – each tailored to the needs of specific groups of young people.

Its first endeavor in the mobile arena, SexINFO, was the first text messaging service ever created in the U.S. Originally developed to help the city of San Francisco quell a gonorrhea outbreak in local public schools, the service served its purpose and served it well. During the pilot phase, the organization observed a significant drop in gonorrhea rates, indicating that students used the service to obtain necessary information and get tested for the disease. As mobile technology advanced, YTH advised on two more modern services – Crisis Text Line and PPInfo – that provide similar information to young people across the country.

When handling such sensitive data, it’s no surprise that privacy is a top concern for Levine. YTH entered the mobile space just as cell phones were starting to become ubiquitous, so their experience gives them a pretty good grasp on best practices when it comes to security, she told TriplePundit. But many nonprofits and social good organizations that aren’t as familiar with security may be unknowingly putting users’ data at risk.

“We really realized that a lot of startups and entrepreneurs and social good organizations have been venturing into the mobile app space,” Levine said. “A lot of times they’re dealing with very sensitive information and are not as savvy or thoughtful preemptively about the users of their technology, their privacy and their rights.”

To boost security awareness in the mobile for good space, YTH is teaming up with the Vodafone Americas Foundation, Ford Foundation and ACLU of Northern California to compile research-based resources for nonprofits and social good organizations that are interested in developing mobile apps, text messaging services and mobile-first websites. The organizations already published a one-pager on mobile apps specifically for nonprofits, but Levine notes that privacy is equally important with something as seemingly simple as a text message line – calling text messaging “the universal app.”

Maintaining security while doing good

YTH 2013_signage Alejandra_6979_CAIf you’re curious about what privacy best practices look like in the mobile space, take a look at the award-winning Circle of 6 app. Developed by YTH and recently transferred to the nonprofit Tech for Good, the app allows college students to select six people from their contact lists who will come to their aid in uncomfortable or potentially dangerous situations. After a user selects their “circle,” he or she can reach out to chosen friends and relatives with one click in a perilous situation related to sexual assault or domestic violence.

The app clearly performs a crucial service and even won awards from the White House for its role in preventing sexual assault and domestic violence among young people, but privacy remained a key component in every step of the development process. When downloading the app, users are presented with a privacy policy in clear English – a refreshing departure from 10-page terms of service written in legalese – that tells them exactly when the app will access their contact list and GPS location. The app only accesses and retains the minimum user information necessary to function, and it does not share, sell or otherwise use that information except in performance of the app.

“Apps leave digital footprints for sure,” Levine explained. “We were very careful to make sure that when you download the app, each user has to opt-in and consent to access their contact book, or their contact list, and also to access their GPS location.”

Other YTH mobile services, such as Unete Latina – a text messaging service that connects Latina immigrants of all ages to Spanish-friendly health care and domestic violence services – also contain key privacy provisions to keep users’ data safe.

Advice for social good organizations

Every app and mobile service requires some access to users’ data to function properly, but notifying users in clear and direct language about how this data will be used can go a long way, Levine said. One simple thing nonprofits and social good agencies can do is to reduce long and wordy privacy statements – which are almost always ignored by users – to a simple text message detailing how and when personal information will be used, Levine advised.

“It’s just being really clear and upfront about use of the data,” Levine said. “Obviously we all have to have privacy statements on our websites and as part of our apps, but for the user interface [it’s important] to really be clear up front.”

After data use is made clear to users, it’s then up to the organization to follow up with developers and make sure privacy guidelines are being strictly adhered to.

“You have to check with your developers and be sure that they’re not checking off boxes that say that the data can be saved or the data can be used, let’s say, by Android or by Apple for other purposes,” she explained.

YTH will continue to work with Vodafone Americas Foundation this year to develop additional fact sheets around text messaging services, mobile websites and apps for nonprofits, startups and social good organizations. The organization will also disseminate findings on privacy at its annual conference, YTH Live, April 6–8 at the Hotel Kabuki in San Francisco.

Ed note: Vodafone Americas Foundation’s annual Wireless Innovation Project is now accepting grant applications from top innovators in the mobile technology field that have the potential to make a decisive change in the world. Applications for 2014 are due February 3rd!

Image of mobile phone courtesy of Vodafone

Image of youth at YTH Live 2013 courtesy of YTH

Based in Philadelphia, Mary Mazzoni is an editor at TriplePundit. She is also a  freelance journalist who frequently writes about sustainability, corporate social responsibility and clean tech. Her work has appeared on the Huffington PostSustainable BrandsEarth911 and The Daily Meal. You can follow her on Twitter @mary_mazzoni.

Mary Mazzoni

Based in Philadelphia, Mary Mazzoni is the senior editor of TriplePundit. She is also a freelance journalist with a passion for storytelling and sustainability. Her work has appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News, Earth911, the Huffington Post, Sustainable Brands and the Daily Meal.

Mary is a lifelong vegetarian with an interest in climate resilience, clean tech and social justice. You can contact her at

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