Mobile Apps: Be Really Careful Out There
Although Terence and I have been “knee deep” in preparing for the launch of our latest vertical analytics solution (PatternBuilders Social Media Analytics) and our Ebook (on Privacy in the Age of Big Data), I came across an article recently that sent up red flags for me and should do the same for you, if you’re a smartphone user. Yes, it’s all about data privacy and your cell phone and yes, I’ve talked about this previously but this time it’s not about what you can do to protect yourself, but what you might not be aware of regarding all the mobile applications you’re using.
What do I mean when I’m talking about mobile, or smartphone applications? Well, they’re all the “things” you use to do something on your phone: search for a restaurant, play a game, read an Ebook (like ours—shameless, shameless plug!), or get directions. Behind each of these actions is an application that makes “it” happen. Now, there are thousands of mobile applications out there and apparently, many of them are hijacking your personal information without your knowledge or consent. According to the Wall Street Journal:
“The Wall Street Journal reported in December that popular applications on the iPhone and Android mobile phones, including Pandora, transmit information about the phones, their users and their locations to outsiders, including advertising networks.
…The Journal tested 101 apps and found that 56 transmitted the phone’s unique device identifier to other companies without users’ awareness or consent. Forty-seven apps transmitted the phone’s location in some way. Five sent a user’s age, gender and other personal details to outsiders. At the time they were tested, 45 apps didn’t provide privacy policies on their websites or inside the apps.”
Did you notice the part about 45 applications that did not provide privacy policies on their websites or from within their applications? Well, I guess that’s one way to get around the privacy issue—if you don’t have a policy we, as consumers, must be on our own!
Now, before I go any further, you should know that federal prosecutors in New Jersey are investigating these applications for criminal violation of the computer-fraud law (and they should!). In fact, here’s something you may find as interesting as I did:
“Legal experts contacted by the Wall Street Journal say that the investigation is serious and significant because it could potentially lead to criminal charges being laid on several companies. Also interesting about this investigation is that previous federal probes on online companies for privacy violations have been few and far between. Wall Street Journal says that they have been informed by a source that the investigation stretches all the way to the app stores run by Apple and Google who have been asked to provide to the investigation information about various apps and their developers.”
“To provide location-based services on Apple products, Apple and our partners and licensees may collect, use, and share precise location data, including the real-time geographic location of your Apple computer or device. This location data is collected anonymously in a form that does not personally identify you and is used by Apple and our partners and licensees to provide and improve location-based products and services. For example, we may share geographic location with application providers when you opt in to their location services. Some location-based services offered by Apple, such as the MobileMe ‘Find My iPhone’ feature, require your personal information for the feature to work.”
“Some apps are also selling additional information to ad networks, including users’ location, age, gender, income, ethnicity, sexual orientation and political views…”
You know, a large part of the success of Apple’s very profitable App Store is based on the premise that its “curation” of apps protects the consumer (all of us) from incidents like this. I mean, isn’t that why Apple blocks applications that don’t meet their guidelines from running on their devices (unless jailbreak technology is used, but that’s a whole other story)? And while Google does not “curate” Android apps, at least it has a global kill switch it can and has used to remove “rogue” apps that illegally siphon consumer’s information. (Perhaps Apple should consider adopting a kill switch of its own.)
For now, when it comes to smartphone apps, please be really careful out there! So far, it’s clear that the application developers and app stores don’t seem to care at all about your privacy.