Android app aims to uncover real value of private data

Researchers from Queen Mary's College are hoping their app will help test advertisers' claims that they are justified in using data gathered from smartphones because people are unaware of the data's worth

Researchers have created an Android app to discover what value people really place on their private data, to check advertisers' claims that smartphone users are happy to hand details over.

Privacy questionnaire app

Researchers at Queen Mary, University of London have developed a Privacy Questionnaire app that probes users about how they view their personal data. Image credit: QMC

The app, part of a study conducted by Queen Mary's College, University of London (QMC), has been in development since February. The trial officially opened its doors to participants on Monday, according to a QMC spokeswoman.

By asking a series of questions each day, the Android app gathers information on the personal data available to the smartphone in that instance and exactly how much money the participant would cost the data at if they explicitly knew it was being shared.

"Most advertisers claim that users do not know the value of their personal information, and hence it is justified to utilise user information for huge profits for the advertising industry, in return for providing a free email or social network service for the user, as an example," Hamed Haddadi, an assistant professor in QMC's School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science, told ZDNet UK.

"We hope to clarify these claims and understand whether the users appreciate the value of being with a colleague at work, as opposed to their partner at a shopping centre," he added.

Haddadi said the Android platform was chosen as it has a less rigorous approval procedure than Apple's iOS App Store and there is a higher percentage of free but ad-funded apps on the Google mobile OS. He noted there have also been more instances of Android apps leaking private information recently. In September, the European Network and Information Security Agency (ENISA) warned that the smartphone industry must shore up the security of its app marketplaces.

On first use, the QMC app will ask a few general questions about a user's background and lifestyle. Over the next two weeks, it will pop up a daily questionnaire that asks what the participant is doing, where they are, who they are with and how they feel about what they are doing. It will also ask how much the individual thinks the information is worth to them.

To take part, people should download QMC's PrivacyQuestionnaire app from the Google Play app store, previously known as the Android Market. It is free to download and is only available to handsets running Android 2.2 or higher. The questionnaire should not take more than two minutes to complete per day, researchers said.

The study will run until the end of April, Haddadi said, and the results will be disseminated using peer-reviewed publications, and in a privacy-awareness workshop on 6 June. 

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