Mobile Apps: Be Really Careful Out There

April 15, 2011 at 4:32 pm 1 comment

By Mary Ludloff

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.”

One would think that application developers have a responsibility to adhere to the privacy guidelines of those who own and control the smartphones’ APIs. For example, Apple’s privacy policy is the following:

“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.”

Note the phrase “location data is collected anonymously.” Well, Apple and Google and anyone else who is running an app store, any app you sell in that store should be held to your privacy policy. Clearly, there are many applications out there that are violating privacy policies and those companies and the app store owners (yes, Apple and Google) should be held accountable. In a lawsuit brought against Apple in December, the company was accused of allowing iPad and iPhone applications to “transmit users’ personal information to advertising networks without customers’ consent.”  In this case, it is alleged that the advertising networks tracked what applications were downloaded, as well as how many times and how long they were used. It appears that the networks were also given access to what most of us would consider very personal information:

“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.)

What can you do to protect yourself? The truth is, in this instance, not much. The one thing I would urge you to do is to look at each app’s privacy policy (I know, it’s a lot of work) and if you discover that you have an app that doesn’t have one, get rid of it. After all, we can all assume that if a company does not even have a privacy policy, the odds of our information remaining, well, private, are pretty low. As for me, I am monitoring this issue and as I find out more information about the apps in question as well as the status of the federal probe, I will let you all know.

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.

Entry filed under: General Business. Tags: , , , , , , .

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