Do Apps I Use Sell My Data?

The research that we and our colleagues are doing identifies and explores a significant threat that most people miss: More than 70 percent of smartphone apps are reporting personal data to third-party tracking companies like Google Analytics, the Facebook Graph API or Crashlytics. Some of the information these apps are collecting are necessary for them to work properly: A map app wouldn’t be nearly as useful if it couldn’t use GPS data to get a location. Once an app has permission to collect that information, it can share your data with anyone the app’s developer wants to – letting third-party companies track where you are, how fast you’re moving and what you’re doing. An app doesn’t just collect data to use on the phone itself. To get a picture of what data are being collected and transmitted from people’s smartphones, we developed a free Android app of our own, called the Lumen Privacy Monitor. It analyzes the traffic apps send out, to report which applications and online services actively harvest personal data. Because Lumen is about transparency, a phone user can see the information installed apps collect in real time and with whom they share these data. It’s about research, too, so we ask users if they’ll allow us to collect some data about what Lumen observes their apps are doing – but that doesn’t include any personal or privacy-sensitive data. This unique access to data allows us to study how mobile apps collect users’ personal data and with whom they share data at an unprecedented scale. In particular, Lumen keeps track of which apps are running on users’ devices, whether they are sending privacy-sensitive data out of the phone, what internet sites they send data to, the network protocol they use and what types of personal information each app sends to each site. Lumen analyzes apps traffic locally on the device, and anonymizes these data before sending them to us for study: If Google Maps registers a user’s GPS location and sends that specific address to maps. Unique identifiers are crucial for online tracking services because they can connect different types of personal data provided by different apps to a single person or device. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, owns several of the tracking domains that we studied, including Google Analytics, DoubleClick or AdMob, and through them collects data from more than 48 percent of the apps we studied. Although our data include many of the most popular Android apps, it is a small sample of users and apps, and therefore likely a small set of all possible trackers.

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