The mobile market was revolutionised when Apple announced apps for their game-changing iPhone back in 2007 – Apps can entertain us with games and music, they can help us get home when we’re lost, and they can put us in contact with our friends and loved ones.
However, concerns are growing regarding what else mobile apps can do – without you ever knowing about it – this is where smartphone privacy comes into picture.
Track your location at home or when you travel. Read your personal emails, text messages and contact list. Trace your searches and web habits. Record your keystrokes when you’re making credit card payments.
Make phone calls without your knowledge. And then legally sell this data on, for it to be used in ways you never knowingly consented to. There’s a lot going on behind that little black screen, and it’s making people worried about how much privacy they’ve got left.
In some cases, we accept these permissions before we install the app – although research shows that few people actually read the permissions before they click accept.
Apps tracking you without your knowledge
There has recently been outcry over the number of mainstream apps that will take the entire contents of your address book – names, emails, phone numbers – to the app’s servers.
This recently came to the fore with the social networking app Path, “the smart journal that helps you share life with the ones you love.” An Indian researcher names Arun Thampi realised that when Path asked new users if they wanted to “Find their friends”, it would then go into the user’s address book and upload the entire contents to its server.
However, others pointed out that most apps do this. The license agreements of Twitter, Instagram, Yelp and Gowalla all contain clauses allowing the app to look in the phone book of the user, although when questioned they claim that it is only used to find people who might be interested in the service.
It was claimed that the database of one company contains the phone numbers of Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison and Bill Gates. If someone wants to download Facebook to their smartphone, they must also agree to app permissions that seemingly allow Facebook to read their text messages (although Facebook responded that these capabilities were only intended to allow for a future mobile payment service).
In other cases, certain software is installed and automatically activated before you purchase it, and the user may never be aware its even there. This recently came to the fore with the public lawsuits against Carrier IQ, and the mobile phone carriers that support Carrier IQ’s logging software, which was automatically installed on earlier models of the iPhone, among other devices.
An official statement said “software designed and sold by California-based Carrier IQ, Inc. was secretly tracking personal and sensitive information of the cell phone users without the consent or knowledge of the users.” Scary stuff.
A major US games company also came under fire in August for violating child privacy laws – collecting and maintaining over 30,000 emails containing email addresses, and in some cases have disclosing personal information to third parties.
It was claimed that this violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which rules that a parent or guardian must give consent to a website operator before they can collect personal information from a child under 13 years of age.
These stories are only the tip of the iceberg – the Internet is rife with theories concerning all aspects of apps and how they invade our privacy.
For the most part the invasions of privacy don’t seem to have any ominous intentions – collecting location data can help offer more accurate weather forecasts, and as mentioned above, most companies want to know who is in our address book so that they can invite those people to start using their service.
At the very worst, tracking our browsing preferences is most likely to be used to send some targeted advertising our way. But even knowing this, most of us can’t shake the feeling that it’s just not right being followed as we are.
We’re haunted with Orwellian visions of our every move and every conversation being tracked, until we consider setting fire to our iPhone and running away to the countryside where we can finally be away from the cameras. Although such a response might be a little overdramatic, current levels of data tracking really are worrying.
So what can you do to protect your smartphone privacy?
First, look at your device and the inbuilt permissions it comes with. Earlier models of the iPhone and iPad came with Carrier IQ automatically installed. Android have also been criticised for underhand data-gathering techniques.
BlackBerry began developing their operating system with security in mind, and this has remained an important point of pride for the company ever since. Many BlackBerry PlayBook reviews highlight the fact that the apps offer much more security than equivalent apps would do on an iPad or any Android tablet.
Secondly, check out the app permissions for applications you already have installed. They should list the permissions that you’ve agreed to by installing that app – if you’re not satisfied, you can either change individual permissions, or delete the app entirely.
Also keep in mind that when you update an app, the permissions for the update aren’t necessarily what they were for the old version.
Thirdly, it’s worth taking a look through your phone’s settings to the features that are automatically enabled. Location services can be disabled in the iOS Settings app, although this can limit your phone’s functionality.
Alternatively, you can adjust the permissions for each app you’ve allowed or denied permissions for. When you’re using an app, an arrow icon will appear in the status bar if that app is accessing your location information.
Lastly, we can learn from our mistakes. When installing new apps in the future, have a quick read through the terms and conditions and make sure that you really do agree before clicking “I Agree”.
Laura is a technology and social media expert from London.