Free Apps at Privacy Cost
Almost all of you are now on a smartphone and believe that many of your tasks are being smarty handled by the device. However, not many of you may have realized that some of its applications cleverly outsmart you. They literally steal data stored on your phone which may also include your calendar updates, personal notes, contacts’ details and much more. How?
Well, glance through your phone or tablet and you will realize that most of the apps that you have installed are free. Often the free apps come with a privacy cost. When you install an app, you simply click ‘agree’ to the terms and conditions, wherein the app developer typically reveals what data you are ‘voluntarily’ handing over to them (your location, contact list, emails, text messages, etc.). In some cases, the app developer may not reveal what all data he may be accessing from your phone.
Many of you could be using Facebook's Messenger app on your smartphone. Do you know that it gives Facebook access to your phone’s camera, audio recording, phone number calling, contact list and much more? Facebook’s ‘terms and conditions’ section details a list of reasons why each is required for its messenger to work correctly. Users mostly agree as they find these reasons legitimate and believe that a brand as big as Facebook will not engage in anything sneaky.
Then, what about the millions of other cool-sounding apps from unknown developers? I was not much aware of these data thefts until I downloaded one flashlight app on my phone. It took me just about a few seconds to convert the phone LED flash into a steady and bright beam of light, free of cost. Or was it? I didn’t realize it at the time that I potentially handed over a truckload of data to advertisers and market-research agencies. Even a simple flashlight app, it turns out, can ask for a shocking amount of user data, tapping everything from my calendar to my phone’s location to my camera to my emails to my contacts and maybe more that it does not reveal. I understand that Google Maps needs your location, but why does a flashlight, a dictionary or a wallpaper app need anything like that?
When I Googled, I found out that Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the United States has clamped down on flashlight and many such apps for downloading data for advertisers without informing consumers. But that is just in the US; we do not have such regulations in India and even if we make some, it will certainly be difficult to curb data thefts by developers sitting in the US or some other corner in the world.
So what do we do? To begin with, avoid most apps that do not come from known developers, especially the ones that need to mingle with your phone’s hardware. Always read reviews and a few articles (on trustworthy mediums) before downloading an app and giving it access to your data. Before you install any Android app, check the app’s page in the Google Play store. Google requires that developers reveal permissions that the app requires. If you are wondering about other apps, visit www.privacygrade.org. Here, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University examine what permissions an app should need, what it actually requires, and then assign it a grade.