Are Hidden App Trackers Secretly Stealing Your Valuable Data?

By 07.31.2019Cybersecurity

Recently, The Washington Post’s Tech Columnist Geoffrey Fowler conducted a privacy experiment on his iPhone that revealed 5,400 hidden app trackers collected data about him in a single week.  Apps on his iPhone sent data – such as PII (Personally Identifiable Information), phone number, email, exact location, IP address – to a multitude of third parties.

Data is being sent to many companies without user knowledge.  App trackers decrease load times, squander battery life, and trigger ads without your knowledge.  Many apps send data in the middle of the night, or when the phone is plugged in to alleviate interference with other functions.  Personal data supplied to third parties can often be used for marketing or political targeting.  By helping companies determine advertising strategies and understand marketing effectiveness, trackers ultimately assist in generating revenue by using your valuable data.

Ironically, Apple’s marketing slogan “What happens on your iPhone stays on you iPhone,” seems to conflict with reality.  Apple strictly requires apps to obtain permission to access some items like the camera, microphone, and photos; however, it appears they do not apply those same standards to what apps do with data provided to or generated by them. Trackers are also a problem on Android phones.

Apps are not required to advise when they are using third-party trackers. So, consumers often have no way of knowing, which increases their vulnerability when data breaches occur.  If you ever open an app and receive multiple tracker notices, you should reconsider using it.

Security Best Practices:

  • Delete unused apps.
  • Keep software current.
  • Be aware of app permissions:
    • If permission to access your data is allowed, it is most likely being used.
    • If an app requests access to irrelevant data, consider it a warning sign.
  • Monitor how the phone behaves after an app is downloaded.
  • A change in battery life is a warning sign; on most phones you can see which apps have the highest battery usage.
  • Search the app name on-line using words like scam or fraud in an effort to determine its legitimacy.
  • Limit Social Media Exposure: Provide the minimum amount of information required in your profile, and restrict how much data you share.
  • Only download apps from Google or Apple stores.
  • iOS Devices:
    • Use Apple’s first party apps, which are held to a higher privacy standard.
    • Under Settings | Privacy:
      • Turn off Location Services for apps that don’t need it.
      • Limit Access to Microphone and Camera.
    • Under Settings | Privacy | Advertising: Turn On Limit Ad Tracking.
    • Under Settings | General: Turn Off Background App Refresh to prevent apps from sending out data while you sleep.  This will not, however, stop data sharing with third parties while using the apps.
    • Under Settings | Safari | Privacy & Security: Turn On Prevent Cross-Site Tracking.

Tech companies may claim to care about protecting your privacy; but ultimately, it’s up to you to stay informed and consistently security-minded to protect your valuable data.

Author kyacovone

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