When your apps spy on you

When your apps spy on you

Summary: Leo Laporte was just ranting about how Color uses the iPhone's microphone to listen to ambient surroundings and today it's revealed the Fed is investigating whether bad apps illegally obtained information without consent.

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It's funny, I was just listening to Leo Laporte complain on TWiT 295 about how the Color app uses the iPhone's microphone to listen to ambient surroundings (presumably to detect nearby users). While Color doesn't hide this, I'm with Leo on this one. I had no idea.

It turns out that the problem could be much worse.

WSJ reports that Federal prosecutors are investigating whether several mobile apps illegally obtained information about their users without proper disclosures.

Pandora admitted in a SEC filing it received a subpoena in early 2011 related to a federal grand-jury investigation of information-sharing practices by smartphone applications.

The Oakland, Calif., company said it had been informed it is "not a specific target of the investigation." Pandora said it believed similar subpoenas had been issued "on an industry-wide basis to the publishers of numerous other smartphone applications."

At issue is whether app developers violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act which was designed to prosecute hackers. The government could try to make a case that some app developers effectively "hacked" into user's devices.

In Pandora's case, both the Android and iPhone versions of its app transmitted information about a user's age, gender, and location, as well as unique identifiers for the phone, to various advertising networks. Pandora gathers the age and gender information when a user registers for the service.

Before installing an app from the Android Market it displays a concise and explicit list of exactly what access is being requested by that app (below) -- which you have to agree to to proceed. On the iOS App Store all you have to do is enter your password and the app is yours. iOS asks permission if an app requests your location or wants to display notifications.

While some iOS apps display terms and conditions on startup, it's rare because it's optional and usually only present in apps written by large developers with large legal departments. I prefer the way apps from the Android Market clearly disclose what access they need before installation.

The article is a great read, and easily accessible by searching Google for "Mobile-App Makers Face U.S. Privacy Investigation."

Are you surprised that free apps collect data about you? Has a T&C screen ever stopped you from installing an app?

GV screenshot: Luís Abreu

Topics: Apps, Android, iOS, iPhone, Mobile OS, Smartphones

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27 comments
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  • Message has been deleted.

    james347
    • It was only a matter of time. This is Apple we're talking about.

      @james347
      Will Farrell
      • RE: When your apps spy on you

        @Will Farrell In your rush to spread FUD and lies you must have missed that Android apps were also mentioned.
        athynz
      • It's called

        @athynz
        having fun at james347 expense!
        Will Farrell
      • RE: When your apps spy on you

        @Will Farrell Dummy dummy dummy dummy.

        This is true of ALL platform apps. If you want to single out Apple, you should PRAISE them for going head to head with publishers for PREVENTING harvesting of user data without disclosure. This stipulation was added to publisher agreements during the 70/30 split fiasco. And publishers are MORE ANGRY about not getting at your data than the revenue!
        lelandhendrix@...
    • RE: When your apps spy on you

      @james347
      Stop with the FUD, this is only an issue in Android/iOS land.
      dazzlingd
      • RE: When your apps spy on you

        @dazzlingd : Stop with the FUD, this is only an issue in computer-user land. And to quote the artivle, "Are you surprised that free apps collect data about you?" Somehow I don't think this is limited to FREE apps! ;-)
        levinson
  • Long live Big Brother!

    Your Ministry of Truth reminds you that Federal prosecutors will only investigate others who spy on you. Federal prosecutors would never themselves listen to the microphone on your device.
    Robert Hahn
  • Message has been deleted.

    SonofaSailor
    • RE: When your apps spy on you

      @SonofaSailor I was going to write a slightly less forthright version of what you just said. Then I looked at a review of the app, which suggests it compares ambient noise between devices to help see if they're in similar locations. Not the way I'd have done it, since the background sound where I am now is probably very different from that 100m away.
      DJL64
    • RE: When your apps spy on you

      @SonofaSailor And again for those of you who are so quick to accuse Apple or spread your own brand of FUD Android apps are just as bad with the spying... And also keep in mind these are all 3rd party apps, not core OS apps for either platform.
      athynz
      • RE: When your apps spy on you

        @athynz
        yeah but apple touts their domineering approval process which means they are either incompetent and allow this to get through or they wholeheartedly approve of it. And saying "but android and MS does it too" is a lame excuse. "but mom, jimmy also stole from the bank"
        rengek
  • While they're at it,

    why don't they investigate Apple's blatant Computer Fraud And Abuse in restricting a user's control over their own property by not allowing them to install any app that wasn't obtained through the App Store?

    Oh, wait. The DMCA makes *that* kind of hacking perfectly legal. Nevermind.
    masonwheeler
    • RE: When your apps spy on you

      @masonwheeler

      Try actually reading the Computer Fraud And Abuse Act before making mindless rants.
      DeusXMachina
    • RE: When your apps spy on you

      @masonwheeler It would be better to reference the practice of bricking customers hardware for installing third party apps (when it was done the first time) or releasing patches that can't be rolled back and render the equipment inoperable. Apple has a trail of unethical moves to choose from, but perhaps with new leadership they may turn that around (for the record I said that without choking with laughter.)
      ITSamurai
  • Interesting idea, despite privacy issues...

    I could see clubs or restaurants handing out iOS devices to their servers just to fill the queue with photos that make their club look more exciting to people using this service. This has the potential to be great if they don't screw it up. I can see why they received more start up funding than Google.
    BillDem
  • RE: When your apps spy on you

    What is needed is somebody to write an App firewall program to ask you and block information when you say no.
    ronangel
    • Let the escalation begin!

      @ronangel The new arms war...apps vs. users. You put a firewall on a phone, the apps developers ask for a way around it in the SDK, and the OS vendor (in order to sell more apps) grants their wish.
      gardoglee
  • RE: When your apps spy on you

    I stopped cold when I read the ToS for the Visa mobile app. They want your phone number, visa #, exp date, and security code. This is the Visa marketing organization. Not your bank.
    raleighthings
    • RE: When your apps spy on you

      @raleighthings That info wasn't in the ToS, it was in the description, right up front for anyone who bothered clicking the ...more link. And, I assume, that it would ask you for that info up front after you downloaded the app. That is not sneaky. The article is about getting your info without you knowing about it. This app asks you directly for it. I agree, though, I don't see why they need that info, it's just marketing.
      levinson