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No Such Thing As a Free App?



How many apps do you have on your smartphone?

According to Nielsen, the average Android or iPhone user accesses about 27 applications on their device each month, spending on average over an hour a day with these apps. So, of course, you were probably happy to download many of these helpful apps to your phone, especially those you could place there for free. But did you realize there may be a hidden cost to these newfound utilities? And that cost could be your privacy.

No Such Thing As a Free App? 1

Most of the popular mobile apps collect a variety of personal data from users, including information about your location, your address book contacts, and your calendar, according to a survey by business security company Appthority, and a new investigative report by The Wall Street Journal.

How does this process work?

Unique serial numbers are embedded into your mobile phone, called UDIDs. Appthority explains, “Access to UDIDs is a concern because, with a unique device identifier, developers can correlate user behavior across multiple apps (even if they have different usernames and passwords for each of the apps) and then match them to a unique user. While Apple has prohibited iOS developers from using UDIDs to track and identify users, Appthority discovered that the new rule is only enforced on devices that are running the latest version of iOS.

Paid iOS apps surprisingly collect more data and share that information with more third parties than Android paid apps, making iOS slightly more risky than Android,” says Appthority. “On the whole, free apps remain the riskiest category, exhibiting the greatest number of risky behaviors across both platforms.

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What kinds of information do your apps collect?

User location is tracked by 82 percent of the top Android free apps, 49 percent of the top Android paid apps to track, 50 percent of the top iOS free apps, and 24 percent of the top iOS paid apps. Address book information is accessed by 30 percent of the top Android free apps, and 14 percent of the top Android paid apps, along with 26 percent of the top iOS free apps and 8 percent of the top iOS paid apps.

Personal details such as age and sex are also harvested by many of the top apps. You might not expect a flashlight app or a calculator to track your location,” says Bill Snyder, a San Francisco technology and business journalist, “but many do.

But why do apps do this?

“One of the main reasons app developers initiate app tracking is to generate supplementary revenue by sharing app user data with advertising networks and analytics companies. In some cases, particularly with free apps, developers are paid based on the amount of data they collect and share about users,” says Appthority. App developers even transmit full address books. Why? One reason is to expand their customer base.

How do consumers feel about this?

According to a poll by The Wall Street Journal which asked, “Do you think apps should tell you when they collect and send information about the mobile device?”

67.9% said ‘Yes, every time.

23.2% said, “Yes, but only when I first install the app.

But have you ever had an application tell you that it is collecting and sending information to its developer about you?

What kinds of information are my apps collecting about me?

The Wall Street Journal analyzed the data collected and shared by 101 popular apps on iPhone and Android phones (including the Journal’s own iPhone app). For example, according to The Wall Street Journal report, here are the kinds of information that are tracked by two popular apps I have on my iPhone (which you may also have downloaded to your smartphone):

ESPN ScoreCenter – username, password, location, and phone ID are sent to the app owner. The Weather Channel – location and phone ID are being sent to third parties. To determine the behavior of the specific apps you have downloaded onto your mobile device.

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