Thursday, May 9, 2013

Guest Post: Apps Collect Our Data. How Do They Use It?


I personally have never thought much about the apps on my phone and how they could be collecting information like this.  A good read for sure!  Thanks for letting me repost this article. 

Most mobile users know that apps frequently collect private information. While it’s true some people aren’t aware of it, most who are aware tend to be indifferent to the idea. But, don’t we deserve a little more info about what app makers actually do with the data they extract from our mobile devices?
An article by NBC’s Bob Sullivan  describes a flashlight app that tracks a smartphone user’s location. It was surprising to many folks to find out that such a handy, seemingly harmless app would be tracking their physical whereabouts, and you have to wonder why an app as simple as a flashlight would need to know that. What’s more distressing is many apps collect device IDs, photos, contacts and even our gender.
Jason Hong at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute revealed that users don’t care as much about what appsdo with our data, as we do about being kept in the dark and being surprised about it.  When seemingly innocuous apps want user data like our geographical location, like the “flashlight” example, it’s a natural response to be suspicious.
Here are a few reasons why personal data is collected:
  1. Your data can help app makers to make important decisions related to future feature enhancements.  These features may help the app to work for you in a more personalized way.
  2. Some apps gather your personal data so that they can target specific ads to you. If your data shows you meet certain criteria, advertisers will tailor their marketing efforts accordingly.
  3. In the case of a malicious app, your personal data could be sold or used for illegal purposes. For example, this type of app might send text messages without your consent to premium numbers. In such instances some users have reported being charged as much as $10 per message. Getting access to your contact list can be a goldmine for malware authors and spammers.
Data gathering doesn’t always have a sinister purpose, but unfortunately we usually aren’t informed why it’s needed. It’s reasonable to wonder how our private information will be used.
Although not required to say why, mobile apps most often warn us when they’re going to collect our information, and they often even specify what data they’ll take. The downside is that we aren’t given a choice – we can either agree to the exchange of data, or pass on downloading the app. That’s not satisfactory to most of us, and perhaps it will change eventually. But, for now, developers aren’t required to give us a choice and the research shows most of us are still willing to take the risk.
As users, what’s the best practice? Make it a habit to read the permission screens on all apps you download.  Make a conscious decision about whether you want to give away the information wanted by the app. If you can’t understand or interpret the permission screen, go to the apps’ website, if it has one, and see if you can get more information before downloading. Make sure you have a strong mobile security app on board to catch any malicious code.
Have you used apps that surprised you with how much or what type of data they want to collect? Tell us about your experiences on our blog, or join us on Facebook.

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