Should You Be Worried About Apps Tracking Personal Data?

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For years now, maybe even decades, we’ve been living in a digital age. Anything and everything we do is quantified as data. The products we buy and prefer. The websites, apps, and media we consume. The places we go.

All this information and more is being parsed into digital files, and it gets fed back to major corporations which they can use to improve their marketing strategies.

In other words, we are the product.

But that is exasperated even more by the multitude of free apps and services that we have at our fingertips. Did you know that most free mobile apps track data from you, many of them silently? That’s right. Information is being recorded and passed on to major companies, organizations, advertising networks, even the government.

It’s happening right under your nose too. The problem is only getting worse as technology evolves and advances. Voice-activated assistants, for instance, now record your voice and various phrases to carry out actions.

How do you think Siri, Alexa, and Google understand what you’re saying? When you hit that little microphone button or activate the voice command feature, the device instantly begins “listening” or recording you. What you say and what the device hears is cross-referenced with a massive database. Primarily, that database is used to help the AI better understand you. But it’s not a stretch to assume it will become more open in the future.

Imagine if large organizations had access to your voice data? What would they do with it? Would knowing they have it make you uncomfortable?


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Nothing Is Truly Free

It might surprise you to know that the top 100 paid and free applications in the Google Play store contain at least one tracker, and this affects Australia, Brazil, Germany and the US. That’s a tracker or data collection tool that is recording something you’re doing and feeding it back to a remote database.

This is concerning, but what’s even more so is what these applications are collecting about you, your family, and your habits.

Many of these apps request permissions – which you willingly accept – to reference call logs, contacts, your current location, message content, social media accounts, your camera and local photos, browser history, app installation logs, and much more.

Other services and apps track data, and never tell you.

Recently, Unroll.me’s CEO publicly apologized to his customer base, because it was discovered the company was monetizing personal content they had been collecting. The service – which is free – curates and helps users clean their email inbox by unsubscribing from spam, newsletters, and unnecessary emails. It turns out, it had also been collecting data on the customers it serviced. Receipts from the ridesharing company Lyft were lifted – pun intended – and shared with Uber, the competition.

apps track data

Should You Be Worried?

Admittedly, some of the data that’s being collected is not so concerning. Things such as your likes and dislikes, what products you buy, and maybe even what stores you visit. Most of this information is available publicly anyway, especially if you use social media.

But when it comes to your privacy and security, things get a little awkward. Your location, for example, is one such piece of information. Many apps track data from the GPS on your mobile and know your current location and where you go. The places you like to shop, eat, and visit aren’t such a big deal but it’s also tracking where you spend a lot of your time, and even where you live.

Then there’s message content and emails. In the case of Unroll.me the service was looking at receipts in customer’s inboxes, but imagine if that functionality had been expanded. Imagine if a system were put in place to target various keywords in personal emails between you and friends, colleagues, or even your significant other.

Sure, you sign away a certain amount of your privacy when you agree to use a lot of these services, apps, and devices but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be concerned about it either. It’s time for everyone to start paying attention to what these apps and services are collecting.

Google put a permissions system in place for Android apps for a reason. You can deny apps access to private and personal content. You can always refuse to use a service that has access to personal data you don’t want it to.

Be smart about it. Pay attention to what these apps and services are collecting. If there’s no clear way to know or the app doesn’t tell you, don’t assume it’s innocent.

 

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Kayla Matthews is the editor of Productivity Bytes and a regular contributor to VentureBeat, Motherboard, MakeUseOf and Inc.com. Follow her on Twitter to read her latest posts.

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