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Study: Tracking of personal data by third-party apps is getting out of control

Published Oct 23rd, 2018 8:08PM EDT
Data privacy
Image: Cultura/REX/Shutterstock

Not that something like this should really come as a surprise anymore, but chances are that Google and, to a lesser extent, Facebook are either accessing or able to access a flow of data about you courtesy of your favorite smartphone app. Data about you that you didn’t necessarily realize such third-party apps were making available and could be used to build an eerily accurate personal profile about you.

That’s according to a new study of a little less than 1 million apps on the US and UK Google Play stores that was conducted by researchers from the University of Oxford. Among other findings, their study revealed, per Business Insider, “how huge numbers of (those apps) are set up to transfer data to big tech companies.” Also, the study found that “88% of apps could ultimately hand over data to Alphabet, Google’s parent company. This put Google top of the list of potential beneficiaries of third-party app data.”

The Financial Times first reported on the researchers’ findings, which included the fact that information shared about users via third-party apps could include details like age, gender and location. The median app was able to transfer such data to five tracker companies, which could then eventually hand it off to companies like Google, and among the worst offenders found as far as tracking goes were apps aimed at children, as well as news apps.

You can check out the full study here. It goes on to explain how such third-party trackers use first-party mobile applications to link user activity across multiple apps to a single person, along with that person’s activity on other devices and elsewhere on the web. Among other things, the researchers explain that data collection “enables construction of detailed profiles about individuals, which could include inferences about shopping habits, socio-economic class or likely political opinions. These profiles can then be used for a variety of purposes, from targeted advertising to credit scoring and targeted political campaign messages.”

Couple this with another report from Bloomberg Businessweek, which found a prevalence of companies that can track you after you’ve uninstalled apps and hit you with messages encouraging you to re-download them. Thanks to stories like these and others, we keep getting one reminder after another of a kind of private sector surveillance state whose capabilities keep getting more robust — and less likely, it seems, to be reined in.

A Google spokesman took issue with the Oxford researchers’ study, releasing a statement that said the company disagrees with the methodology and findings. The statement goes on to say the study mischaracterizes “ordinary functional services” like crash reporting and analytics, as well as how apps share data to deliver those services.

Nevertheless, Frederike Kaltheuner, data exploitation program lead at Privacy International, told Business Insider these kinds of tactics are no longer about the collection of data to present users with a customized, tailored and relevant ad experience. “This is about profit maximization,” he said, “at the expense of peoples’ fundamental rights.”

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.