At a time when the mobile sector is a-buzz with ideas on how to monetize mobile apps, now might not be a great time to mention that many mobile apps are secretly leaking all kinds of personal data to third parties.
That’s according to a report on the Wall Street Journal web site, which claims that many popular apps for iPhones and Android phones transmit personal data from the phone to third parties without the user’s knowledge or consent.
The WSJ tested 101 apps, and found 56 of them secretly transmitted the phone's unique device ID – described by mobile advertiser exchange Mobclix as a "supercookie" that marketers track, only it can’t be deleted or blocked like regular cookies – to mobile advertising companies, while 47 apps transmitted location-based info and five sent personal details such as age and gender.
Pandora, Grind, Paper Toss and TextPlus 4 were declared the worst offenders, with each app sending age, gender, zip codes and device IDs to several ad networks.
It’s worth noting that it’s unclear just how big a deal this is in the first place, since the data is still anonymous from the ad network’s POV, and a device ID isn’t the same as, say, a photo ID card.
But it sounds scary to the average mobile user – especially the tracking part – and users (or at least the ones who hear about the WSJ article) may react the same way they react to each new Facebook privacy controversy (the latest of which involves face recognition technology, if you’re interested).
Granted, Facebook’s user base certainly hasn’t suffered in the wake of its constant privacy debacles. So mobile apps usage may not drop over privacy fears, either.
On the other hand, just as people are now becoming more savvy about the consequences of social media indiscretions, mobile users may grow just as savvy about mobile apps, and be more judicious about what they download – or at least demand that new features be rolled out on an opt-in basis.
The big question then becomes – as BT Counterpane’s Bruce Schneier has pointed out – whether companies whose business models are driven by the needs of advertisers, not users, have any economic incentive to listen to them.