Smartphone apps have invaded all parts of life. Want to know the weather? Check the app. Home security cam? There’s an app for that. Game results? There’s lots of apps for that.
All of that means that smartphone apps are like a reflection of your life. Your location is a no-brainer, even if you don’t add in GPS apps. So are your interests. Your purchases, your entertainment preferences and even your home could be an open book. Your real name, gender, age and address are probably all on there somewhere. If you’ve ever bought anything over your smartphone, your credit card information could be as well.
Some of that information is collected and stored by the smartphone app, either through the registration process or by copying other files stored on your smartphone. Google won’t even let you sign up for their new social service if you don’t give your real name and Google cookies hang around forever.
Some of it is collected and stored automatically by the phone company, whether that’s deliberately or through a bug. Even just having a cell phone means that your location and smartphone’s unique device ID is constantly being recorded and there’s no way you can get around that. That’s for tower routing and billing purposes. However, most mobile companies and apps go way beyond that. Some of them have been pulled into court for that.
There’s also no guarantee that all that information stops with the phone company or the maker of the app and that’s even if your phone isn’t lost, stolen, or hacked. Most smartphone apps don’t have privacy policies. Google and Apple don’t require them. Apple claims that all the apps it offers must ask permission before sending on personal information, but that hasn’t stopped many apps from doing it.
It doesn’t help that there’s no consensus and no regulation. Apple treats the iPhone’s unique device ID as personal information for privacy purposes. Google doesn’t.
One examination of 101 popular apps for iPhones and Android phones showed that more than half transmitted the smartphone’s unique device ID to third parties. That ID is all the information someone needs to relay phone calls through your phone. Nearly as many apps also transmitted the phone’s location. Five of them transmitted gender, age, and other personal details to third parties. There’s no regulation and no specific law against it, yet.
Any marketer would love to know your life in that kind of detail. If you’re interested in that, maybe you’d be interested in this? No? Would a coupon change your mind? So a lot of that information goes towards targeted advertising. That’s maybe not so bad when your phone app comes up with coupon codes and special sales for the store you are in. On the other hand, it’s not so good if someone’s hacked into your phone and wants to know what time you’re away from home and for how long.
With all that information out there somewhere, it’s going to be a growing part of evidence for court trials. Sometimes having that information at hand will help your case. But what if your smartphone is seized and searched against your will? The courts still haven’t decided if smartphone privacy should be covered by a separate warrant.
There’s not even a guarantee that a smartphone app isn’t really a Trojan horse. No, not the virus type, which copies and hides itself inside files. The original Trojan horse looked so much like a gift that the Trojans willingly dragged it inside their walls. A lot of smartphone apps look the same way. What’s to say that the useful feed or the entertaining game you got for free wasn’t made solely to catch your interest so it can siphon off your private information? Sometimes “free” can be extremely expensive.
Some app developers have gone a step further. They claim to sell apps which protect your privacy by waiting for your okay each time personal information is sent out. It’s still a new field and no one really knows how well it’s going to work. However, malware which looks like antivirus software has been around for nearly as long as the Internet. There’s nothing stopping app developers from copycatting.
In the end, if you’re going to download smartphone apps, you’re going to have give up some of your privacy. There’s no way around that.
However, you can be smart about how you do it. Sticking to known, trusted companies with solid privacy policies reduces the risk. If you’re looking at an app from a smaller developer, check the buzz online before clicking. Sometimes a little advance research can save you from a big mistake.