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App Security Holes: What Are Apps Doing Behind the Scenes in Your Phone?

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“There’s an app for that.” is something you may hear as a joke, but truly, it seems like there are apps available for everything. We use apps for navigation, socializing, dating, ordering food, and even meditating. There are even apps to manage our other apps!

But you’re probably wondering: 

What are these apps doing in the background when we aren’t using them? 

When you download an app from the app store you give it certain permissions and access to parts of your phone. Over time these apps are collecting information. What information are apps collecting when you aren’t using them? Who are apps sharing information with? What these apps are doing in the background of your phone could be way more than you bargained for.

Apps collect data to work more effectively. An app may need access to your GPS to tell you people who live nearby for dates, restaurants that deliver to your area or to give you directions. But once they have access they continue to have access until you revoke the permission.

Why are these people so interested in what you’re doing?

There is a market for your information. In some cases, it can just be to target ads to you. But there’s also a ton of data that is randomly being collected and you may not like how it’s being used. 

The Cambridge Analytica scandal was a huge wake-up call to the dangers of what can happen to your information. Cambridge Analytica, a “global election management agency” offered deep psychological insights to help political candidates micro-target their information to potential voters. Basically, they collected a lot of information to form a profile. Then, based on that profile, they would micro-target political information to try and convince you to vote for the candidates that hired them. 

But does forming psychological profiles based on questionably acquired data sound like a fair election? 

Cambridge Analytica also violated Facebook’s privacy policy. The personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users were acquired via 270,000 users who used an app called This Is Your Digital Life. By giving this third-party app permission to acquire their data, in 2015, users also gave the app access to the information of their whole network. So it’s not just your information that’s in jeopardy but also the information of everyone connected with you as well. Yikes.

From a business standpoint, apps collecting user data can make sense. This information can help advertisers, businesses, and brands. 

The problem is you should know exactly what is happening with your information. It should be 100% transparent what is happening and it should not be happening in the background.  In a privacy experiment by The Washington Post, they found over 5,400 trackers attempting to share over 1.5 gigabytes of data over the span of a month. That could be the bulk of your data plan happening while you are charging your phone.  

Now these trackers may only be sending small amounts of data, but these third parties can be collecting small amounts of data from multiple apps to put together a profile on you. They can be tracking where you are, who you are talking to, and what you spend your money on. 

If it sounds a bit big brother, that’s because it is. 

Cookies are a big piece of this picture. Cookies keep track of you on websites. They keep you logged in and help your experience. But they can also slow down performance. 

Similarly, many app trackers running in the background of your phone can slow performance and gum up connection speeds. On our computers, we have the option to choose ad blockers, private browsing, or VPNs. But with our phones we can be limited. We can’t deactivate all apps. Some apps force us to maintain their access in order to work. But should they have access to your GPS, photos, and contacts when you’re not using the app? We may not even have access to some of these trackers to block them. 

So, what can we do about it?

There are apps and services available to help us cut the ties of these trackers. 

Disconnect and Privacy Pro are mobile VPN options. They’re apps that specifically target these app trackers to limit the information they can share. Cutting off the access of these trackers can give you some peace of mind and privacy protection. It’s also good to check your phone’s app settings to limit the access. You can also opt-out of tracking with some apps. 

Managing your app settings is vital

Sure, some apps may need to verify your identity for a transaction. An app may track certain user data to improve their services. An app may use a third party to host ads. After all, many of these are free apps and they do need revenue to continue supporting the app. But, the fact that apps are sending your information to third parties should be a concern. 

Privacy policies protect the use of your information by those app developers. But app privacy policies can keep those developers free from liability for anything that happens to this information that is passed to third parties. So basically, if a third party has gained access to your information from the app developer they can do whatever they want because the app developers have freed themselves from liability. 

Apps can be a major hole in your cybersecurity. You may not be aware but there can be tons of pieces of data leaving your phone while you are busy going about your day. If you want to take control of the situation, you should regularly check what you are giving your apps access to and change that access regularly. Consider apps that help limit data leaving your phone without your permission.

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