Be Careful; Your Apps Are Watching You

Be Careful; Your Apps Are Watching You

Turns out that many of your popular mobile apps contain hidden 3rd party trackers built into them where a single app can contain dozens of these trackers without you ever knowing they are working in the background.  Digital researchers from Yale’s privacy lab conducted an investigation into hundreds of popular mobile apps like Tinder, Uber, Snapchat, Spotify and many others only to find many have hidden trackers within them keeping an eye on your likes and dislikes while making note of what your doing and where you’re going.

So, the developers who create the apps use, what they call an SDK (which is short for a Software Developers Kit) which is the framework to creating an app. They usually insert the SDK into the app and sometimes the SDK acts as a tracker. Quite often, the SDK is added into the app by the developer during the time of building the app but these software development kits are frequently from another company besides the company developing the app. So for example, the Snapchat or Spotify app might collect its own data on your location or listening habits in order to recommend songs or attach your location to an image but it seems to be that this data is getting shared with other companies then the owner of the app creator.

Basically, when you download and install an app, you agree to give a lot of phone data via all of its sensors to the app when it runs. That’s why you always see, the first time you open a newly installed app, multiple pop-ups asking for permission to your camera, contacts, microphone, GPS, etc. For many apps, they need access to some of your phone’s sensors in order for it to work properly, however, once the app has access to your location say, it can then harvest that data in many other ways giving third party companies access to it as well.  So digital privacy engineers have the means to study in more detail the network traffic created by the app and it’s their party vendors learning how this data gets harvested and who is using it and they have noticed that many apps seem to send data on your location to many different company locations. For instance, third parties are interested in what isle you walk down in a store and what products you buy or if you frequent a competitors store more.

Even though engineers from Yale’s privacy lab can’t completely determine everything these apps are doing, as it seems to be a ‘black box’ system, they can tell by the apps marketing literature,  its features, implementation and the many calls it makes to multiple home addresses that there is a wide variety of surveillance going on.

One 3rd party tracker called ‘Safe Graph’, seems to track your location at specific times of the day , for instance from 1AM to 5AM and from that determine where you live. Then, if you go somewhere else between the hours of 8AM or 10AM they can then assume your work location. Harvesting all of this data, these 3rd party trackers can create a very accurate data set of movement profiles of your life. And so, that is just one aspect of what is getting harvested with 3rd party trackers. Other apps are not as sneaky and they just siphon your name, address, email directly.

Mainly to get highly targeted advertising. I think the end game is to have you in a Minority Report style situation where as you walk down the aisles of a store of mall, you see ads to only the products you might be interested in.  That said, with this type of big data on the world’s population data engineers are starting to see the beginning of behaviour models on the population being built where in the future artificial intelligence or machine learning will be aware of everyone’s movement and likes and dislikes.  

Just to give you a taste of how much some apps are aware of your movement, if you have any Google apps or services installed on your device of computer, just go to, login with your Google account to see a map of all of your movements for everyday.



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