Researchers from the Yale Privacy Lab and Exodus Privacy, a French non profit organisation, have documented the proliferation of software intended for tracking users by means of their smartphones. They have found these trackers to be present on applications that ostensibly offer information on the weather, that allow users to use flashlights on their devices, that offer ride-sharing, and even those that promise to get you dating again! These trackers are able to collect huge amounts of information from uninformed users spending time online, and this data is then used in order to better target advertising.
Almost a Quarter of Apps Include Trackers
While this is not something you have to worry about when you enjoy online real money pokies, of course, the security researchers from Exodus managed to identify a total of 44 trackers in more than 300 applications that operate on Google’s Android system. These apps, taken collectively, have been downloaded billions of times, and the Yale Privacy Lab, from within the university’s famed law school, are looking to replicate the Exodus findings that have already made reports on 25 of these trackers available.
It’s Probably Not Just an Android Problem
The researchers from the Yale Privacy Lab have only been able to analyse Android applications so far, but it is believed that many of these trackers will also be existent on the iOS, thanks to the fact that most companies distribute apps for both platforms.
In order to locate the trackers, the Exodus researchers constructed a custom-built auditing platform for Android applications, which then searched the apps for the digital signatures known trackers distil. A signature could take the form of a telltale set of keywords, a string of bytes found inside an application file, or a mathematically-derived hash file summary.
The Pervasiveness of Tracking is Being Underscored
These findings underline the spread of tracking, which is occurring despite a system based on permissions on the Android operating system that is supposed to put users in control of the data they disseminate. They have also highlighted how a big and varied set of companies are working to enable tracking!
People are Unaware of the Scale
Sean O’Brien, a visiting fellow at the Yale Privacy Lab, stated that he thought that people were aware, to some degree, that applications like Lyft may be tracking them. He added that the fact that this app in on Android, and available on Google Play, meant that it was usually understood that Google might be tracking them, too. But, he said, he did not think that users suspected that their data was being sold, or at least distributed, by means of these trackers.
The Applications Identified with Trackers
Among the Android applications that researchers identified with trackers included:
3. The Weather Channel
4. Super-Bright LED Flashlight
These four were seen to have six or seven trackers each.
The digital music service embedded four trackers, including two directly from Google.
This app had three trackers.
10. Microsoft Outlook