How free are the apps in our smartphones?
That depends on the price you put on your personal information. Many are sucking sensitive information from our phones only to be sold for a profit.
More disturbing, most people don’t even realize it.
Researchers at CMU’s School of Computer Science
say 80% of all mobile users are unaware that their smartphone is sharing their location, contact lists and other personal information around the clock. Users should be forwarned of the hazards associated with the great, unregulated Internet.
“The study basically shows that there’s a very sophisticated amount of information being collected and most people don’t even know it,” Norman Sadeh
, a professor at CMU’s School of Computer Sciences and co-founder of Wombat Security, an Oakland-based firm working on tools that teach how to identify suspicious online activity.
Among the 10 invasive apps that surprised users, in a crowdsourced study: Brightest Flashlight, Toss It (game), Angry Birds, Talking Tom (virtual pet), Backgrounds HD Wallpapers, Dictionary.com, Mouse Trap (game), Shazam (music) and Pandora Internet Radio.
Apps like GoogleMaps raised few concerns because most knew they were giving up location information, says Sadeh. The bottom line is nothing is free. App developers are in the business of making money by aggregating information that is used to push display ads our way.
Insurance companies, for example, have apps that may one day track our location and the speed at which we are traveling, information that will undoubtedly be used to modify our insurance premiums. So what can mobile users do to protect themselves in this wild frontier?
Become vigilant of the ambiguous popups that periodically surface asking for access and tap Deny, says Sadeh. iPhone users have some degree of control of this information by going to settings and toggling privacy settings on for each app.
“You can always protect yourself by uninstalling an app,” he adds.
While the problem carries over to personal computers, the smartphone is more at risk because it travels with you and details and location information are much richer.
For the researchers, the study was the first step in identifying the problem. The team hopes to develop smart tools and launch a website that will systematically scan apps and make it easier for users to gain this information.
The National Science Foundation, Google and the Army Research Office sponsored the work.
Writer: Deb Smit
Source: Norman Sadeh, CMU