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Uber, Tinder, Skype, Twitter, Spotify, and Snapchat are keeping tabs on their users. Researchers from Yale University’s Privacy Lab have discovered that these popular apps contain hidden trackers that observe all that app users do on their phones, unbeknownst to the cellular users. The researchers indicate that such hidden tracker monitoring is likely a widespread practice, spanning apps even beyond those already mentioned.
The researchers contend that people should “be alarmed by the data.” “Publication of this information is in the public interest as it reveals clandestine surveillance software that is unknown to Android users at the time of app installation,” the Privacy Lab team noted in a recent blog post discussing the findings. “Lack of transparency about the collection, transmission, and processing of data via these trackers raises serious privacy concerns and may have grave security implications for mobile software downloaded and in active use by billions of people worldwide,” the post continues.
Yale researchers examined 25 of 44 total identified trackers. The trackers, although diverse in their “features and purpose,” facilitate “targeted advertising, behavioral analytics, and location tracking.” Working in conjunction with Exodus Privacy, an organization that assesses privacy concerns in Android applications, the Lab members determined that more than 75% of the 300+ apps evaluated by Exodus Privacy bore evidence of tracker use. The researchers qualified their designation of certain apps as tracker free by stating that the apps devoid of trackers might in actuality use trackers that the team has yet to identify.
The Privacy Lab and Exodus Privacy are urging both app developers and Google to be straightforward about the prevalence of trackers across Google Play supported apps. “The process of Android app development and submission to the Google Play store has revealed the ease of adding tracker codes and the ubiquity of trackers,” researchers state.
To illustrate the simplicity of tracker inclusion in apps submitted to the digital store, researchers produced an app called FaceGrok, submitting the app to the Google Play platform. Capable of identifying faces in an Android’s camera, FaceGrok does not transfer facial recognition data garnered from app use to a third-party, but could in fact do so with a few tweaks. If transmission did occur, it would do so at the ignorance of the app user.
The group’s study of tracker use is limited to Android applications, but signals the probability of tracker presence in iOS apps as well.
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