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Is Your Cell Safe? Secrets Your Phone Might Be Broadcasting Behind Your Back

Woman shocked looking at smartphone

Your mobile phone…is it a life-changing invention or the end of all privacy? Our cell phones give us access to information right at our fingertips. There are apps to make our lives easier. We can control everything from locks on our doors to the lights in our homes. We can talk via text, email, video, and phone call.  But our reliance on our phones has made it easier for us to be tracked. Our phones can be having secret conversations of their own. We give apps access to our GPS, messages, contacts, and even our microphone and camera. Our phones can have access to way more information than we intend for them to have. They can also share this information further violating our privacy.  So how safe is your cell phone? And what secrets could your cell phone be sending without your knowledge?

It’s important to understand there is a market for your information. Ad companies, brands, and even political candidates use the information they collect to more effectively market to you. = They can use the information to target their message to better convince you to do what they want. Honestly, if you are not paying for an app there’s a high likelihood you are paying for it with your information. Companies will pay big bucks for market research. But apps can collect a ton of market research for free. In fact, they can even profit off of your information by sharing it with third parties. Now there is the information you actively share i.e. the profiles you fill out, the contacts you add, and the information you enter. But there’s also the information apps can collect from your device in the background. 

We give applications access to certain parts of our phone. They can access our photos, our GPS, and our contacts. We also accept terms and conditions and privacy policies without doing much of a deep dive. Apps make no qualms about sharing your private information with third parties. These third parties are ad trackers. They collect data, serve advertisements, and ping your phone. They may collect data to improve the app or to get a clearer understanding of you as a user. But think about what information they can be sharing. What you buy, where you are physically via GPS, where you go on the Net via your browser, who you talk to, and potentially, even what you talk about.Think about how many apps are on your phone. Even if an app only collects a fraction of this information…if multiple apps are sending multiple pieces of data to these third parties that’s enough for to put together a profile on you. 

A study by the Norwegian Consumer Council (Forbrukerradet), found that popular apps, like OkCupid, Grindr, and even women’s cycle tracking apps like Clue and My Days, were sharing user data with at least 135 advertising-related companies. The shared data included GPS locations, IP addresses, as well as personal details about gender, sexuality, and political views. A privacy experiment by The Washington Post found over 5,400 trackers that would have sent out as much as 1.5 gigabytes of data over the span of a month. That could be someone’s entire mobile data plan devoted all to background tracking. This data gets sent in small packets being shared while your phone is charging or in the background of all of your phone’s processes. 

The issue with this data sharing is more that it’s without your knowledge. If you are using Google Maps and it’s pinging your location to let you know where you are that’s why you downloaded the app. But what if you’re using a map app and it’s pinging your location and sending that to a third party ad vendor. Then that ad vendor knows where you are so they can serve you ads for local businesses. That may be a bit too close for comfort. Also, since these third parties skirt the privacy policy there’s no clear information about what they are doing with the vast amount of data they have access to. 

With our computers, we are a bit more advanced. We can find VPNs, use private browsers, and protect ourselves. But with apps, we can be limited. It’s important to regularly check in with your app permissions. You are within your right to limit what parts of your phone random applications have access to. You can limit that they only have access to parts of your device while you’re using the app. You can also stop the app from working in the background. These changes may cause some apps to not function as well. But, it can be important to ask yourself why do apps need access to certain parts of your phone so badly. That research can help give you peace of mind. 

For specific limitations on apps there’s an app for that. You can consider arming yourself with your own third-party help. An app like Lumen Privacy Monitor will look at what apps are doing in the processes and who they may be communicating with. It will also classify the threat level to your privacy. Disconnect is a tracker blocking VPN you may want to consider to protect your information from these third-party trackers. 

Apps have become a part of our lives. We use them to order food, get rides, and even help monitor our mental health or children’s screen time. And yet, part of the price of these free apps is all of the random data points they pull from our habits, behaviors, and phone usage. That information is then cycled through ad companies and third-party vendors we may not ever hear of. So while you may be quick to think “There’s an app for that” be mindful of what your cell phone can be doing with that app when you aren’t paying attention.

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