Your iPhone Apps Know A Lot About You

By , Dec 20, 2010

The Wall Street Journal has shared the results of an eye-opening investigation on how apps share personal data. Since the success of the App Store, apps have become the backbone of what makes or breaks a successful, mobile device.

The Journal looked into how some apps (both iOS and Android) actually behave with your phone’s information, and examined the personal data that most don’t know is shared through apps. The results were a little disturbing…

Apparently, your apps are not that good at keeping secrets. The Journal says,

“An examination of 101 popular smartphone “apps”— games and other software applications for iPhone and Android phones—showed that 56 transmitted the phone’s unique device ID to other companies without users’ awareness or consent.

Forty-seven apps transmitted the phone’s location in some way. Five sent age, gender and other personal details to outsiders.”

Although the Journal’s study was somewhat restricted, they did find informative conclusions.

“To expose the information being shared by smartphone apps, the Journal designed a system to intercept and record the data they transmit, then decoded the data stream. The research covered 50 iPhone apps and 50 on phones using Google’s Android operating system.”

If you think about it, your smartphone knows more about you than any other device or service could have known in the past. Your current location, phone numbers, real name, interests, demographic information- even a unique ID number that is unchangeable and permanently attached to your device.

The Journal’s investigation into how apps are sharing personal data reveals the truly intrusive nature of the mobile business. While companies like Apple are insistent that they take privacy very seriously, apps are sending personal information to ad agencies right under our noses,

“Both the Android and iPhone versions of Pandora, a popular music app, sent age, gender, location and phone identifiers to various ad networks. iPhone and Android versions of a game called Paper Toss — players try to throw paper wads into a trash can — each sent the phone’s ID number to at least five ad companies. Grindr, an iPhone app for meeting gay men, sent gender, location and phone ID to three ad companies.”

Many people use Pandora for music streaming. Were you aware that your demographic information was being sent to multiple ad networks through the app?

What was surprising about the Journal’s findings was that iOS apps share the most data. I would have assumed that the open-source nature of the Android Market would be more susceptible to undercover data mining.

Information that was almost as surprising was that apps that would seem to need the smallest amount of user data actually collect the most.

TextPlus 4, a popular iOS app for free text messaging, sent the iPhone’s UDID (a unique, traceable identifier for every iOS device) to eight ad companies and sent the user’s age and gender to two companies.

Knowing personal data, like location, can be helpful for apps to be effective at their job. Location-based apps like foursquare function by being able to use the user’s location for check-ins. What is disturbing about the Journal’s findings is that there are plenty of apps out there that aren’t upfront about the information they are sending along to ad companies.

The simplest example of this fact can be shown by asking yourself a question. Did you know there’s a good chance that multiple ad agencies know just about everything about you (including your location) through the apps you download?

It’s a pretty safe bet that most end-users don’t realize the true amount of personal data that they are inadvertently giving to apps, and in turn, mobile advertising companies.

On that same token, there does need to be a degree of fairness shown. Targeted ads are the way that the mobile and web industry makes money, and app developers are simply following the money trail. Who could blame them?

Why charge for your app when you could give it away with ads, then sell the user’s information to mobile ad agencies for incredible amounts of money? You would get more downloads of your app and more revenue from paying ad distributors.

The real problem with this issue is communication. Specifically, app developers not communicating with their users. The Journal says,

“Many apps don’t offer even a basic form of consumer protection: written privacy policies. Forty-five of the 101 apps didn’t provide privacy policies on their websites or inside the apps at the time of testing. Neither Apple nor Google requires app privacy policies.”

Most users won’t ever look at an app privacy policy anyway, but the unsettling fact is that there are many instances were an app could share personal information without your knowledge. That’s something that needs to be brought into the light.

Ever since smartphones started having built-in GPS, user privacy has been a big issue. With all of the personal information that is stored on our iPhones nowadays, the caution needs to be even greater.

I encourage you to read the rest of the Wall Street Journal’s article on this issue. It provides some interesting insights into this privacy problem.

What do you think? Does it even bother you that apps have been, and are currently, selling your personal information to ad companies without your explicit consent?

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  • http://ottodestruct.com Otto

    How exactly would a phone know your age and gender? I’ve never put that info in my iPhone before.

    • Pedro

      Man don’t u use Facebook? Or twitter, or myspace? these sites normally ask for that kind of information, and your phone has access to them through apps doesn’t it

      • Shadow Creeper

        And I always put bogus info in there.

  • http://www.aNILEator.com aNILEator

    It bothers me, but I also accept that heads of big business are all linked and often corrupt and will make a buck from anything and everything and often already have sold my details on even without my permission or against my express request to never do such things with my data so figure my data’s already there anyway.
    Small businesses often really struggle and in this megamart super highstreet of apps it would be hard to stand out and get ‘seen on screen’ then you hope someone’s actually bought your hard worked app and not just downloaded a cracked version just to break even.
    But then that’s another argument for the need for trial versions imo.

    It’s a wobbley, spiky, multi coloured world. not straight and black and white.

  • Tony

    What harm am I in if some ad company knows my age? Or my gender? How different is it from telling a complete stranger my age if they ask me?

    So an ad agency knows my current location. Are they going to come out from wherever they are, 1/50 chance they are in the same state, and come try to sell me something? You can argue panhandlers on the street would be more annoying as they can see you personally and directly communicate with you in that very moment.

    • soccerkrzy

      None really, it’s all about marketing. The ad agencies use all the information harvested to better tailor ads for your gender, age group, and regional market.

      • Tony

        Ya and everyone who uses the Internet should be fully aware that anything you do on it can be logged and sent to 3rd parties. I just don’t feel my privacy is being threatened by some random ad company knowing my age, gender, location. Now if they shared that, plus your name, plus all the porn sites you visit, and send that list to everyone in your contact list, that would be an invasion of privacy.

  • Burge

    You should have the right to know that this is happening and you should be able to turn it off or on as you wish….my phone my details ….

    • soccerkrzy

      You’re on this site which uses Google Analytics, they’re sending your location information, what browser you’re using, and a lot of other details. You probably didn’t know that did you?

      The Pandora location is interesting if Pandora is using the location to create better music matches based of regions of the country, lol.

      • http://www.iphonedownloadblog.com Sebastien

        Well actually, even if Burge didn’t know about it, there is a page on iDB that explains what we do with your data. Every website or app should have a similar page
        http://www.iphonedownloadblog.com/privacy-policy/

  • the_j_button

    i knew this was happening! i just knew it!

    i actually searched for a Little Snitch app the other day. something like that would be awesome for iPhone.

    peace.

  • http://www.ideaapps2cash.com Idea Apps, Inc.

    I don’t like the apps that tell people where you are at a specific time. If by chance someone does have info of your home address, which I have seen people give on certain Social Media sites, wouldn’t you be asking for trouble.

  • Benl

    This was brought to my attention some time ago, although I do see that it is now putting a little fear into people. If anyone has issues with this stuff, I suggest you do a few things.

    One, do not use location on your apps. I don’t and I keep it that way. It’s pointless, and I don’t need people to know where or who I am outside the app I’m using. Two, I rarely use data when I’m on an app. I cut my edge off all the time to save battery. Stuff like pandora, I use only edge but I gave fake info to pandora, and I give fake info to about anything that isn’t by law to give up real info. Even this site, I won’t put my real email, no offense to the people who own this site and run it. Three and most important. Awhile ago jay freeman and a few other people made an app on cydia called privaCY. This will prevent these kinda tools, from stealing our info. Stuff like Facebook and twitter, which I complete steer clear from should not have all your info. Keep it short. My Facebook has my pictures & that’s it. Nothing more. The people who add you know you, don’t néed to be a spot like for the Feds and others like ads who want to track you. That’s how you get spam in mails and those weird text messages or calls and pop ups on computers.

    I know it sounds like a lot of crazy stuff to do, but I don’t want anyone to know what I do in my life, other then myself.

    All personally stuff can be hide via cydia. Udid, pop ups, ads. You all have control over this through cydia. No one has to take my advice, but from one man to all dudes and females out there, just becareful, because who knows if it’s just ads they’re taking. It could be are addresses and social too. This country has a hi fraud rate, no wondering why.

  • Daniel

    I would want an ad company knowing my age/gender. For example, a 19 year old male wouldent want an ad for “Strawberry Shortcake” dolls, would he? But his 19 year old sister might, and his 10 year old sister probably would.

  • Philippa Maze

    I don’t think having an app “know” your age and gender raises a cause for alarm. Generally, it’s just the developer’s way to study the demographics of the people who use their apps, which is how they will improve their app on the next version. When the app asks for info on your location though, give it a general address to be safe. As a busy mom, I rely on mom-friendly task management apps but before I download one, I make sure to read its Privacy Policy. I actually use Intuition (http://www.iconapps.com/product.htm) and so far, I had no problem with using it.

  • Shrike

    There’s only one thing I found shocking about this: The fact that anyone was shocked by this at all. Of course it’s happening. It happens on your computer too, but you don’t hear people screaming about that.