Your location has been shared more than 5,000 times in the last two weeks

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How much is your smartphone spying on you? Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac
How much is your smartphone spying on you? Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

Smartphone users know that sharing personal data with apps can be part of the price of free apps, but when it comes to how frequently those apps give that data to third parties, the numbers will shock you.

A new study by Carnegie Mellon found that some smartphone users’ data is shared more than 5,000 times with third parties in a two-week period. Most people are totally clueless this is happening, but the study found that when people learn how much frequently data is being shared, they act rapidly to shut down the spread of personal info.

During the course of the three-phase study, researchers collected app behavior data from 23 people using their own Android devices. On Android, users opt-in to location tracking when apps are downloaded. For iOS, it’s done on the device when it first attempts to use location. Still, many of the APIs developers use on the two platforms are very similar.

For the first week, candidates used their devices and apps like normal. During the second week, they were given access to AppsOps, to monitor the data those apps were sending. Then for the third phase, daily privacy notifications were sent to each participant detailing the frequency at which their sensitive information was accessed by apps.

Researchers found that app permission managers provided meaningful help to manage access to data. Participants checked their permissions 51 times and slammed 76 different apps with 272 permission restrictions. However, once permission changes were set, users rarely looked at them after a few days.

“App permission managers are better than nothing, but by themselves they aren’t sufficient,” said Norman Sadeh, a professor at Carnegie Mellon. “Privacy nudges can play an important role in increasing awareness and in motivating people to review and adjust their privacy settings.”

Once participants entered the third phase of the study, they began to received privacy nudges alerting them to the number of times apps shared their data, which led to an increase in blocking permission on apps. Sadeh says privacy notifications aren’t a silver bullet, though. Ultimately, his team of researchers hope to create software that can automatically configure your privacy settings for you, based on just a few privacy-related questions.

Source: Carnegie Mellon

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  • pk_de_cville

    These amazingly high stats are worst case scenarios for ONLY Android phones.

    The Android OS has all active apps running in background mode when they are not being used in foreground mode. If 7 apps are active and reporting on location, then each of the 7 will report location on whatever frequency the app has coded for that. (Every 3 or 5 minutes for instance.)

    iOS doesn’t allow active background apps to run, as they do in Android. If 7 apps are reporting on location each of them may report ONLY when they are in the foreground. If I look up something on Maps app and don’t return to any of the 6 others, the only app that shares my location is the Maps app. None of the others share unless use them in the foreground.

    And finally, when they do get into the foreground, I have to explicitly allow location sharing in each instance whereas Android permits choices about location sharing only once and my choice applies to ALL apps running and even those that are launched after the choice has been made.

    Quite a difference in policy and philosophy. The bottom line is an iOS owner has much greater, more explicit, and finer controls for location sharing than an Android user.

    • Case

      Just tell us you love Apple and their iOS. It is all the same on any platform. Even worst on iOS, it is much easier to implement “location sharing” from and to any source. Besides than, Google, Apple or any others knows where you sent your comment from.

      • pk_de_cville

        I guess we disagree.

        Care to address active background apps periodically reporting location in Android (to the tune of 5000 reports biweekly) vs //no active background// apps //allowed// in iOS?

  • digitaldumdum

    “Your location has been shared more than 5,000 times in the last two weeks”

    Ahhh, but not if Location services is not even on, which, on my phone it rarely is.