I Spy – Smartphone App Privacy Invasion

I Spy – Smartphone App Privacy Invasion

I recently came across this video on the WSJ’s News Hub “What They Know” series and was slightly horrified.

In this feature, Julia Angwin, WSJ.com Senior Technology Editor, explains to Simon Constable, Dow Jones Newswires columnist, how smartphone apps gather and broadcast data about users. However, unlike clearing the cookies on your computer, with a smartphone, the data is embedded so there’s pretty much nothing you can do about it. I suppose smartphone users could refrain from downloading apps altogether, but, let’s face it, that’s never going to happen.

After testing 100 apps to find out what kind of data was sent out while they were in use, Julia and her team discovered that the majority of apps send identifying information about users to other companies. But how do these companies get your information? It turns out each smartphone comes with the equivalent of a serial number on the inside. This is your phone ID and goes with you wherever you go!

For instance, Groupon, the popular coupon site, will receive your ID number, instantly know you like coupons and then notice you went to play the addictive Angry Birds game. It’s this kind of “spying” that allows companies to build profiles on users based on their app use.

Julia singled out a few of the other “leakiest” apps they found including, textPlus 4, an iPhone app for texting, which sends your ID number to eight different companies and your zip code, age and gender to two companies. This gets pretty specific, especially for more remote locations with less dense populations. I was particularly horrified to learn that Paper Toss, an app I have downloaded and play on occasion, sends your ID to five different companies along with your location to three companies. Yikes!

And, what’s more, while most companies have privacy policies in place, many of the associated apps do not. Julia did mention that Angry Birds, among others, is currently working on a privacy policy. When downloading apps, most users don’t go through privacy stuff and just go straight to the download, especially if it’s an app that’s been recommended by a friend or is as popular as Angry Birds.

What do you think? Will this data gathering and privacy issue deter people from downloading apps or is it just a futile effort to get people to wake up? I know that I, for one, have deleted Paper Toss from my Droid X, but I can’t seem to give up Angry Birds just yet, especially the season’s version as we’re still in holiday mode!


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