A Lot Of Apps Sell Your Data. Here’s What You Can Do About the idea.

Your devices are tracking you all the time. You just don’t know the idea yet.

When you consent to sharing your data with many well-known apps, you’re also allowing app developers to collect your data as well as sell the idea to third parties through trackers which supply advertisers with detailed information about where you live, work, as well as shop.

In November 2017, Yale Privacy Lab detected trackers in over 75% of the 300 Android apps the idea analyzed. A March 2018 study of 0,000 free Android apps found which more than 55% of trackers tried to extract user location, while 30% accessed the device’s contact list. as well as a 2015 analysis of 110 well-known free mobile apps revealed which 47% of iOS apps shared geo-coordinates as well as additional location data with third parties, as well as personally identifiable information, like names of users (provided by 18% of iOS apps), was also provided.

While the presence of trackers doesn’t necessarily mean developers are breaking the rules, emails obtained by BuzzFeed News show how data marketing firms convince developers to include trackers in their apps: cash.

“Most third-party services operate from the background as well as do not provide any visual cues inside the apps, effectively tracking users without their knowledge or consent while remaining virtually invisible,” wrote researchers in a February 2018 study. Meanwhile, the collected data is usually virtually untraceable as the idea is usually passed coming from data broker to marketers to others.

Apple as well as Google’s policies prohibit sharing or selling user data with third parties unrelated to improving the app experience or displaying ads from the app.

In emailed statements to BuzzFeed News, an Apple spokesperson wrote which “immediate action” is usually taken on policy violators, while a Google representative said, “We have policies which disallow apps in Google Play which are deceptive or misuse personal data, as well as we remove apps which violate our policies.”

although the idea’s easy for developers to evade detection. Trackers are tucked away from the app’s codebase, as well as developers can share user data outside of their apps by uploading the idea to a server.

@charlesproxy also: turns out some stargazing app I installed many years ago has been sending my location to their servers every couple of minutes for the last 4 years 🤯 https://t.co/1n31O1YkKa

Here’s how location tracking works: Marketing companies offer app developers cash in exchange for implementing a few lines of code — called an SDK or “software development kit” — into their apps. The SDK sucks up all the user data which the app has access to, as well as the developer gets a check every month in return. Marketers use the location data to target advertising campaigns based on where you are (a coupon for donuts when you’re next to a donut shop, for example) as well as to measure whether an online ad drove you to visit a retail location. The goal is usually to understand your habits as well as ultimately, get you to buy something.

Because data collection for the purposes of advertising is usually either disclosed in long-winded privacy policies or not at all, the idea’s difficult to tell which apps have trackers as well as which don’t.

Nearly all types of apps include trackers. Major companies whose businesses are built on advertising-based revenue — like Facebook as well as Facebook-owned Instagram, as well as Google’s suite of apps including Gmail as well as YouTube — collect a wealth of detailed user information. although because Facebook as well as Google run their own advertising ecosystems, not sharing their user data protects their competitive advantage. although smaller companies do have financial incentive to share data with third parties.

A March 2017 email obtained by BuzzFeed News coming from Teemo, a Paris-based marketing company, reveals how developers are approached with pay-for-data schemes. from the idea, a Teemo employee laid out a “pure data play”: Developers place Teemo’s SDK into their app as well as Teemo pays $4 per thousand users per month. ”You have 1 million [monthly active users] > 4000 USD,” the email says. “Straight to your pockets.”

In February 2018, researcher Will Strafach of Sudo Security discovered which three well-known US-based iOS apps were sending people’s location information to Teemo. Perfect365, Kim Kardashian’s selfie-perfecting app of choice; the Weather Live – Local Forecast app (ranked #4 from the weather apps category); as well as The Coupons App sent latitude as well as longitude, as well as timestamps for departure as well as arrival to GPS coordinates, to a Teemo server. Strafach confirmed to BuzzFeed News which the latest versions of the apps had Teemo code embedded.

After a BuzzFeed News inquiry to Apple, Perfect365 as well as The Coupons App are no longer available from the App Store. Teemo did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment.

A Perfect365 spokesperson said, “The only location data we collect is usually coming from users which have opted in” to location sharing. In an email, The Coupons App’s CEO, Aaron Rzadczynski, said the app’s users consent “to absolutely anonymous, passively-collected location data both prior to install as well as post-install.” Weather Live did not respond to requests for comment.

Though these three apps each inform users which they are using location data, none say they’re sharing the idea that has a third party.

BabyBus / Via play.google.com

A screenshot coming from BabyPanda’s Farm, a BabyBus app.

Even restricting location access on an app won’t necessarily prevent the idea coming from revealing your location. Abbas Razaghpanah, a researcher at Stony Brook University, found 581 Android apps, including dozens geared toward preschool-age children made by a developer called BabyBus, shared Wi-Fi access point names as well as MAC addresses (a unique identifier assigned to all network devices, like your router), which can be cross-referenced that has a public database to pinpoint your location. BabyBus did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment.

In 2016, the Federal Trade Commission settled with mobile advertising company InMobi for employing the same tactics on hundreds of millions of consumers, including young children.

Location data can also be used to infer sensitive, personal details about you. Copley Advertising used phone location data to target young women near reproductive health clinics across the country, like Planned Parenthood, with ads coming from anti-abortion groups. In April, the advertiser reached a settlement with the Massachusetts Attorney General which bars the idea coming from targeting women with these ads.

the idea’s hard to see where marketers take your data, because their policies often allow them to resell the idea: In one study, researchers found which eight out of the top 10 ad-tracking companies reserve the right to sell or share data with additional organizations.

“the idea’s very difficult to get any idea of where the idea goes, as well as who the idea goes to. The ecosystem is usually extremely opaque, which is usually part of the problem,” said Cooper Quintin, a security researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Marketers say which the information they collect is usually anonymized, although the idea’s easy to de-anonymize location data, according to several studies. “The anonymization debate is usually something which needs to be challenged. the idea’s misleading,” said Michael Kwet of the Yale Privacy Lab.

Data management companies like Salesforce create profiles of people through what is usually referred to as “stitching together” data sets, says Kwet. “Our behavior is usually very individual. the idea’s not possible to have a rich set of data as well as have which be truly anonymous,” Kwet explained. In an emailed statement, a Salesforce spokesperson denied which they are a data management company, although rather “the leader in CRM (Customer Relationship Management),” as well as wrote, “Salesforce does not create profiles of people. Companies turn to Salesforce technology to help build as well as grow customer relationships, leveraging their own information to do so.”

the idea’s hard for Apple as well as Google to police developers’ behavior on their massive platforms: Both the iOS App Store as well as Google Play Store host over 2 million apps each. Moreover, both say protecting user privacy is usually also the developer’s responsibility.

“Developers must also take the appropriate steps to protect such data coming from unauthorized use, disclosure or access by third parties,” an Apple spokesperson said in a statement. Google said the idea automatically scans Android apps for malicious code although also relies on users as well as developers to flag apps for review.

although the idea’s impossible for either Google or Apple to prevent data marketing firms coming from coaxing developers with monetization proposals.

“the idea’s flat-out selling user data for cash. There’s no additional reason to do the idea,” said David Barnard, the founder of app company Contrast.

In a document which a representative coming from Factual, a location data company, shared with Barnard in February 2017, the company laid out just how easy the idea is usually to sell user data collected coming from Barnard’s app Weather Atlas. According to the sheet, Factual didn’t require the implementation of an SDK — instead, the developer was instructed to upload user location data to an Amazon server run by Factual. Based on the amount of data uploaded, the developer could receive a sum of money via check every month. In a follow-up email, Factual said the idea was interested in collecting the user’s advertising identifier, latitude/longitude, as well as timestamps.

Courtesy of David Barnard

The proposition was tempting: “This specific is usually what puts food on the table for my family. … There’s a direct monetary incentive to break the rules,” Barnard said.

The Texas-based app maker told BuzzFeed News he turned Factual down. “Once I sold This specific data, even if I disclosed, I had zero control over how the idea was used, as well as no idea if people I sold the idea to could give the idea to someone else.”

Factual maintains which the idea works to protect consumer privacy. “There are certain behaviors we do not share with partners, as well as work actively with several industry bodies to adhere to best practices, like the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI),” said Brian Czarny, who leads the company’s marketing efforts. NAI is usually a nonprofit dedicated to “responsible data collection as well as its use for digital advertising,” according to its website.

In advance of May 25, when the EU’s upcoming data protection regulation, GDPR, kicks in, Factual is usually removing data which was obtained without explicit consent coming from European citizens as well as rebuilding its European database.

For US citizens, similar legislation may be coming. After public outcry over news which up to 87 million Facebook users may have had their data inappropriately accessed by the political analytics firm Cambridge Analytica, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he could be open to regulation.

“at This specific point which Cambridge Analytica has our attention, we should be thinking about all the myriad ways our data is usually scraped as well as sold. We shouldn’t treat Cambridge Analytica as the only people doing bad in This specific space,” said the EFF’s Quintin.

although change will require pressure coming from the industry at large. “the idea’s not an individual problem, the idea’s an ecosystem problem. There’s a push to normalize physical location tracking, as well as the idea’s being used to manipulate as well as herd people. If you want to opt out, the idea’s not easy,” said Yale’s Kwet.

“There’s a push to normalize physical location tracking, as well as the idea’s being used to manipulate as well as herd people. If you want to opt out, the idea’s not easy.”

“the idea’s a very fragmented process — you have to read the privacy policy for each app, then send us an email, then go to This specific website. If you make the idea a little extra work for people, then they won’t do the idea,” Kwet explained.

Barnard hopes which developers will indeed put the onus on themselves to prevent their users coming from being constantly monitored: “As the trust of iPhone owners erodes through scandals like Facebook, Uber, AccuWeather … I’d like to think which indie devs like myself are a bastion of wish as well as trust for users. Indie devs can have which marketing angle. We should be the trusted little guys, respecting our users’ privacy when the big companies as well as scam apps won’t.”

– If you have an iPhone, go to the Settings app > Privacy > Advertising as well as enable Limit Ad Tracking. There, you can also reset your advertising identifier, which clears the data associated with your advertising number. You can also opt out of location-based ads by going to Settings > Privacy > Location Services > scrolling all the way down to System Services as well as disabling Location-based Apple Ads.

– If you have an Android device, go to Settings > Google > Ads > as well as enable Opt out of ads personalization. You can also reset your advertising ID there. All Google users can turn off ads personalization through the Ad Settings page.

– Yale’s Michael Kwet also suggests Android users try the F-Droid App Store, because the idea offers apps without tracking as well as incorporates a strict auditing process. Android users can also try UC Berkeley’s Lumen Privacy Monitor, which provides detailed reports of what data apps on your phone are sending off to third-party servers.

– Firefox incorporates a free mobile browser built just for blocking ads as well as ad trackers, called Firefox Focus. For browsing on the web, you can use the Privacy Badger browser extension with Chrome or Firefox, which is usually an ad as well as ad tracker blocker by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

– When you download an app as well as the idea asks for any kind of permission, consider whether the idea genuinely needs the idea. For example, a weather app may work just fine with your zip code, as well as you won’t need to grant the idea access to your phone’s GPS.

– If an app is usually free, comb through its website as well as try to understand its business design. Open its privacy policy as well as look for a section called something like “Information we collect about you.” If the idea’s not clear, try contacting the developer yourself to ask for more information.


This specific post has been updated that has a statement coming from Salesforce.

Nicole Nguyen covers products as well as personal technology for BuzzFeed News as well as is usually based in San Francisco.

Contact Nicole Nguyen at nicole.nguyen@buzzfeed.com.

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