Free Apps at Pri­vacy Cost

Consumer Voice - - Ed­i­tor's Voice - Padma Joint ed­i­tor

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.pri­va­cy­ Here, re­searchers from Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity ex­am­ine what per­mis­sions an app should need, what it ac­tu­ally re­quires, and then as­sign it a grade.

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