Free Android apps under privacy fire

Data passed on to ad networks as well as developers
Darren Allan

March 6, 2012
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Apparently many free Android apps may come with a hidden cost, namely access to data and rights on your phone to an excessive degree – and not just for the app developer, but for advertising networks.

This particular concern has emerged following a Channel 4 investigation in conjunction with MWR InfoSecurity.

After giving permissions to an app in order to install it, MWR InfoSecurity discovered code which gave ad networks access to the likes of your calendar and contacts.

The code originated from a US advertising network called MobClix, who didn’t respond to any enquiries on exactly what it was doing there, or how it harvested data, and what was subsequently done with that data.

A researcher with MWR InfoSecurity told Channel 4 News: “We found that a lot of the free applications in the top 50 apps list are using advertising inside the applications, and that the permission that you grant to these applications is also granted to the advertiser.”

“If users knew about this, I think they would be concerned about it. But at the moment I don’t think they are aware of the situation and how widely their information can be used.”

As an exercise, Channel 4 asked MWR InfoSecurity to design a sham app disguised as a Rik Astley photo gallery, which was produced merely to harvest data from Android handsets.

Apps can potentially gain access to call logs, personal contacts, text messages, media, the handset’s camera, location data – a whole range of data, depending on the permissions given.

When showed the findings, Viviane Reding, the vice-president of the European Commission, commented: “This really concerns me, and this is against the law because nobody has the right to get your personal data without you agreeing to this.”

“Maybe you want somebody to get this data and agree and it’s fine. You’re an adult and you can do whatever you want. But normally you have no idea what others are doing with your data.”

“They are spotting you, they are following you, they are getting information about your friends, about your whereabouts about your preferences.”

“That is certainly not what you thought you bought into when you downloaded a free-of-charge app. That’s exactly what we have to change.”

Part of the problem with Android is that there’s no screening of apps, so less scrupulous developers aren’t subject to any sort of scrutiny when getting their wares onto the Android Market.

And has been proven time and time again, most people don’t read lists of permissions anyway.

Samsung Galaxy S3

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