Apps on your smartphones transfer a big share of your personal information to third parties. Yes, you have agreed to this data sharing process, but you may not be aware of the extent of the information the app takes from you, and the companies who benefit from compromises in data security.
Apple Inc has directed all developers on its App Store to declare their privacy practices and the type of data they collect from users. All new and updating apps will have to show their privacy information on their home pages of the App Store starting from December 8.
The developers will have to declare if they are collecting any contact information such as email, phone number or physical address. Or sensitive data like racial or ethnic details, sexual orientation, pregnancy or childbirth information, disability, religious or philosophical beliefs, trade union membership, political opinion, genetic information, or biometric data.
Data security concerns
So, why does an app require sensitive information like your political allegiance and sexual orientation?
Mobile apps use the data they collect to create a profile for each user. This points to the Cambridge Analytica scandal that came out in 2018. Facebook faced charges of selling the above-mentioned sensitive information to political advertisers. Data of around 87 million people went out in this manner.
Although the sharing had started in 2013, it took five years for the leak to go public. This was thanks to a whistle-blower who used to work with Cambridge Analytica. Although the users had agreed to share their data, they were not informed about how the data will be used and who the beneficiaries are.
88% data flow to Alphabet
Cambridge Analytica is in fact a tiny example in a large pool of dubious data sharing processes. The apps on your smartphone continue to share your data with multiple third-party companies based on the consent you give while installing it.
According to a 2018 research done by Oxford University, 88 per cent of apps transfer data to third-party companies owned by Alphabet, the parent company of Google. The researchers came to this conclusion after studying 33 per cent of apps available on the Google Play Store.
They also found that more than four in 10 apps share data with Facebook-owned companies. Most apps share data with at least 10 third-party companies, while one in five apps shares data with more than 20.
Read the research paper here: Third Party Tracking in the Mobile Ecosystem
All these statistics point to the fact that there is widespread data sharing going on in your smartphone. Although you may find it as a friend in need, your phone is actually a foe that exposes your deep secrets to people you don’t even know.
Many wonder what is wrong if a few pieces of information is shared with the mobile applications you get for free. They look harmless. But your phone knows all the places you have ever been, everything you have searched for or asked the Google assistant/Siri, your personal IDs, passwords, every unencrypted message you sent, and more.
If one app collects information about your location, a second app may have access to your contacts. But a third-party company that has information from both the apps, will know your location and your networks, enabling them to make a better profile of you. The more information they get from the apps, the bigger profile they will have of you. The recently-released Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma sheds more light on the information your phone gathers and how it tries to manipulate each user.
Apple’s data security initiative
So, how does Apple’s directive to app developers to declare privacy practices change the current data sharing scenario? First of all, Apple is a company that wants to portray itself as the champion of data protection.
However, it seldom is.
Apps on Apple’s Store are equally as bad as Google Play Store. They leak a lot of sensitive information without the user’s knowledge. But, Apple’s new directive is a step towards better privacy for its users.
By declaring the information that it takes, Apple is trying to make the developers accountable for the information they take from users. The Silicon Valley company has also made plans to make developers ask users for permission to gather data and track them across mobile apps and websites.
The original plan was to introduce it with iOS14 that rolled out in the first week of September. However, Apple has decided to give some more time for the developers to comply with the changes.
What should the tech giants do?
We are in a phase when privacy is of utmost importance, yet there is absolutely no privacy for anyone. Apple’s decision to make developers accountable for the data shared is welcome. But we need more significant steps from other tech giants. Transparency and strong regulatory frameworks are key to enable more privacy.
Users should be in a position to know exactly what information about them is going out. Who takes it, who they are sharing it with, for what purpose and what the implications could be. Both the operating system provider, and the app developers have equal responsibilities in ensuring the privacy of the public.
And, most of all, you have an even bigger responsibility to read the privacy and data security information before you click the install button on that new app you want on your phone.