Big Brother is watching

Lynn Greiner, freelance IT journalist and regular contributor to InsightaaS.com
Lynn Greiner, freelance IT journalist and regular contributor to InsightaaS.com

We tend to think of our phones and computers as personal devices. They live close to our bodies, and are privy to confidential information. We don't think of them as gossipy snoops that pass that confidential information off to people who could profit from it.

Silly us. Most of the electronics we carry merrily do just that.

Take a look at the privileges requested by any app you install, and, indeed, at the end-user licensing agreement (EULA) for the device and its operating system. In carefully-couched legalese, most agreements are worded completely in favour of the vendor – some have even had the gaul to try to assert ownership of content created by the user. They also usually contain a clause that basically informs you that if something goes wrong, even if it's their fault, it's your problem, and you waive the right to proper recourse.

Depressing, isn't it.

Whether or not these clauses have been, or could be, upheld in the courts, they show the attitude of device vendors and software publishers alike – users are but a means to an end, and that end is to gather and sell as much information as possible to advertisers or data brokers, so they, in turn, can target ads to their profit.

To be fair, not everyone takes advantage of users. And "free" apps have to be paid for somehow. But the situation is out of control; the price in many cases is way too high.

Consider: why would a music app want access to your contacts, camera, and phone calls? Does a search engine really need access to your files, whether they're on the device or in the cloud, not to mention your SMS messages (and, yikes, be able to send texts)? Should an airline's app be able to access your files, device ID, and call information (including the phone numbers you contact or who contact you)? For that matter, should a one person game know your location, or be able to use your camera and microphone, or access your photos, media, and files (none of which are relevant to the game)?

These are all real-world examples of the privileges required by Android apps. I once even saw (and denied) a conference agenda app's requirement to "send email without the user's knowledge". Excuse me???

And if you don't comply with all of the requests, well, no app for you. In Android, there is no ability to grant partial permissions. The only thing you can do to mitigate the possible consequences if you're desperate for the app is to resort to things like turning off location services on the device to prevent apps from knowing where you really are if they do check your location.

To make things even more interesting, upgrades to installed apps can demand additional access. For example, an app with a relatively short list of requirements (identity, phone, access to all files, and device and app history) may suddenly demanded access to contacts, location, SMS, camera, WiFi connection data (including the names of all devices on your network), and device ID and call information for its upgraded version. And what does this app do? It's a vendor-installed user interface and app launcher, and the content of the update was allegedly merely bug fixes.

Hmmmm.

The list of information that can be required by apps is mind-boggling. Google provides an information page on its website that describes each item in detail. It has also posted a set of policies around apps that is well worth reading. They lay out what information the developer is allowed to collect, under what circumstances, and what can be done with it. Of course, there are sufficient weasel words included to seriously compromise your privacy anyhow (ex, "without the explicit consent of the user" is there, but I'll bet that since you clicked "I agree" to the permissions list before installing, they can argue that you've consented). There are also numerous prohibitions about disclosing personally identifiable information, but nothing about collecting it.

I'm not just picking on Google – most mobile devices contain privacy compromises of some sort. Android just happens to be the most pervasive mobile OS right now, and the one most targeted by those with unsavoury intents. Or, in some cases, just opportunists who figure that they should collect everything, just in case it would be useful at some point. The big questions are, where is the data actually going, and how are they securing it.

One company that aims to find out is Location Sentry LLC. The Vancouver, Washington-based company has developed an Android app called SpyAware that monitors your phone, determining which apps are potentially dangerous based on the permissions they require, and, as time goes on, telling you what data is being exfiltrated, and where it's going. It can't change anything (that would require a rooted phone, something beyond most users' capabilities), but it does alert you to data usage (how much of your expensive bandwidth is being hogged by data collection over which you have zero control), even by vendor or carrier-installed apps that you can't get rid of.

The app itself requires fairly significant permissions to do its work: device and app history, location, access to photos, media, and files, Wi-Fi connection info, and device ID & call information. However, the company's privacy policy states that it does not collect or sell user data. And in the SpyAware Manifesto, the company says:

"We believe your data should belong to you. We believe you should control when it is shared and with whom. We believe you should be told when your data is taken and why. We believe you should have a say when your information is sold."

While the app can't fix problems, it does offer the user some choices. There's a link to the US Federal Communications Commission's complaints page – the company believes that registering concern will help nudge the US towards better data privacy laws – as well as guidance on how to complain to Google if an app is misbehaving. SpyAware also plans to enable its reports to be uploaded to an online database that users can refer to if they're suspicious of an app. In its blog, the company noted, "By creating this database, the public and researchers will have the opportunity to study what apps are doing. We are seeing an entirely new data ecology that has evolved in the last 10 years that most people are almost entirely unaware of. By studying it, we can begin to see who is behaving ethically and tell you even more accurately what apps are a danger to your privacy."

Apps like SpyAware are a good step in that direction. We still won't know how the collected data is being secured, but at least we'll know where it's going, and what, exactly, is being inhaled by that supposedly benign app.

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