Data Brokers are Feasting on Free Apps

Data Brokers are Feasting on Free Apps

The first time I saw a highway billboard for Applebee’s restaurant that said “Free Apps” I thought to myself, “Why is Applebee’s giving away free apps?”  It actually took me seeing the sign a second time to realize they were talking about free appetizers and not phone apps—dah!

But then as I was mulling over my mistake it came to me that really, data brokers are using the data we provide over our phone apps like a smorgasbord (okay I know that’s a bit of a stretch).  How tempting is it for them to be able to select any free personal data appetizer they want–whenever they want it?  And the optimal word here is FREE!  We’re giving out names, addresses, contacts, calendar information, sensitive photos, travel plans, shopping habits and even our locations to apps we’ve downloaded. We can turn on our house lights, unlock our doors and monitor our kids.  All of which means we are giving away our privacy and sometimes even our safety, just for the fun of having and using dozens of apps on our phones.

When you make your cell phone your inseparable companion and share your confidences, you are sharing them with a host of other parties, including your wireless carrier, mobile advertisers, app developers, your  phone manufacturer, and the maker of your phone operating system.  And it doesn’t matter if it is a free app or if you paid for it, almost all have tracking devices built in.  Did you read your service agreement?  Did it tell you that your data was going to be shared?  It almost seems like it doesn’t matter, if you hit ‘accept,’ you’re in trouble and if you don’t hit accept and just cancel and close, the app is still running in the background and collecting information–and you are still in trouble.

You are probably asking, “Why are the makers of cell phones allowing this?” Unless you have been avoiding the headlines for the past year, you already suspect that  Google, Apple, Microsoft, Blackberry and all the makers of communication devices, have tool-kits for developers to develop apps that make money. The tool kits include the ability to turn on the ports — GPS, hardware input/output ports, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Near Field Communication and microphones–which means they have created a developer’s dream tool-kit to monetize your phone’s data.

One company, Flurry, thought of another way to obtain your personal data.    They started their business by giving away an analytic tool that tells app-makers how people are using their applications.  App-makers embedded it into their products and now over 1.5 billion phones have Flurry on over 500,000 applications.  Meanwhile, Flurry is also sending all that information back to itself to sell to marketers.

If I haven’t completely convinced you that using a phone app is similar to playing Russian roulette because you don’t know which ones are spying on you, I hope I can convince you to at least limit the information they collect by following some of these recommendations.

  1. Disable your location tracking except when you need it for driving or finding a store.  If your phone’s operating system lets you turn off location tracking for individual apps, use that feature for better control.
  2. Don’t click on those pop-up links that appear when you are in another app. They are not only annoying but they can start downloading malicious software that scans your email, address book and calendar.  Sure it’s tempting when playing a game to download another game that pops up and  looks like fun.   Be strong, game apps are the biggest abusers of data privacy.
  3. But if you can’t resist putting yet another app on your phone, choose a reliable brand. You can check them out on the internet to make sure they have no credible complaints about lack of privacy or security.
  4. Set up any apps that contain sensitive or personal information to only be accessed with a password. It goes without saying to use a strong password–$, &, #, @, %, are all good substitutes for letters.
  5. Don’t ever store passwords, PINs, or your Social Security number on your phone.
  6. There are security apps you can buy to protect your personal information from being downloaded to data brokers. While they might not stop a really motivated hacker, most data thieves would rather target the easy phones than work around obstacles you have installed.
  7. Before you sell or recycle your phone, delete all data and remove the memory card. Restore your old phone’s factory settings to ensure your data has truly been deleted.

The reason you own a Smartphone is to be able to download a variety of apps including games, music, books, and other things that are of interest, or help you with your daily life.  There are apps that remind you to take your medicine, and apps that identify the sky’s constellations.  There are apps that track how far you walk in a day, and others that assist in planning a vacation.  Just don’t be in such a hurry that you skip reading the permissions section.  Read the fine print to see where security issues might arise.  Don’t forget for a minute that when you download some of these apps they help themselves to a smorgasbord of your personal data, take unknown pictures with your phone’s camera, track your movements, and send it all back to those ever-present data brokers.  Err on the side of caution and you can lower the odds that your personal information will be featured on the next data hacker’s menu.