Mobile Anonymity: Get App-Smart

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The latest installment in the Wall Street Journal’s well-researched and growing “What They Know” series on consumer protections and online privacy reveals a startling look at the privacy protections — or lack thereof — for customers downloading various apps on their mobile smartphones.

mobile apps

The article says people have become “all but powerless to limit the tracking” since unlike on regular computers, app users can’t opt out of mobile phone tracking or delete cookie tracking files.

Among the 101 total apps tested, the WSJ article shows that iPhone apps transmitted more data than the apps on Android phones, though both were criticized for sharing consumer details to various ad networks.

As just one example of how both systems allegedly misuse consumer privacy protections: both the Android and iPhone versions of music site Pandora sent age, gender, location, and phone identifiers to various ad networks.

Get App-Smart

So just what are app makers doing without your knowledge? Here is a rundown of just some of the varied ways your privacy is being compromised every time you download a fun, free, or fan-favorite app:

  • Attention Angry Birds fans. Free and paid versions were tested on an iPhone, and users’ information and location were shared with Electronic Arts Inc., which markets the games. (The creator of the addicting bird-battling game says it has updated its privacy policy in response to the findings.)
  • In fact, many app developers transmit users’ locations to ad networks without asking permission.
  • 45 of the 101 apps tested did not provide privacy policies on their websites. (Neither Apple nor Google requires app privacy policies.)
  • The most widely shared detail was the unique ID number — think of it as a “supercookie” — assigned to every mobile phone that cannot be cleared like a computer’s cookie. That is how advertisers track everything — and in fact, a company called Traffic Marketplace admitted that it monitors smartphone users whenever it can:

“We watch what apps you download, how frequently you use them, how much time you spend on them, how deep into the app you go.”

  • Meanwhile, the creator of the DailyHoroscope Android app says he values users’ privacy too much, yet he is losing “a lot of revenue” by declining to transmit users’ locations to ad network executives.
  • Ads targeted by location bring in two to five times as much money as untargeted ads.
  • Finally, the WSJ tested its own iPhone app and discovered it does not send information to outsiders (the newspaper doesn’t have an Android phone app).

One final tidbit — and perhaps the basis for another investigative piece by the WSJ — is that Apple has apparently filed a patent application to understand “known connections on one or more social-networking websites” or “publicly available information or private databases describing purchasing decisions, brand preferences.” Essentially, it would be a system to charge advertisers higher prices to contact certain consumers based on their search history and other shared, known information that makes them more desirable targets.

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Elaine Rigoli

Elaine Rigoli is PRIVATE WiFi’s manager of digital content strategy.