The turn of the year has not been especially kind to Apple Inc. and its insanely popular (though not ubiquitous) iPhones and iPads. A widely-reported (and satirized) bug in the clock/alarm application meant many millions were not awoken by their alarms in the first few days of 2011, for example.
Yet the bigger problems started a week earlier, when Jonathan Lalo of California filed a class-action, or group status, lawsuit for his complaint that Apple is giving away his personal information without his consent. The lawsuit claims that the transmission of personal information is a violation of federal computer fraud and privacy laws. Apple is not the only target of this suit, as Pandora, Paper Toss, the Weather Channel and Dictionary.com, are listed as defendants as well.
The concern over privacy and the use of mobile devices could be one of the hot topics of 2011, as mobility apparently means transparency.
Even in today’s computer age, we spend a fair amount of time away from our boxes. But our smart phones (and our growing numbers of tablets/pads) are almost always with us. They give us almost instant access to family, news, reminders, and donors. But they also give others almost instant access to us.
To some degree, we all probably can comfortably live with that trade-off, and we are at least aware that we can get access to a Privacy Statement from Apple or Toshiba or Nokia if we need to. But an in-depth report in The Wall Street Journal last month traces the many ways information about us is given away without our knowing it – and by applications that made no effort to draw up a privacy statement.
The report, by Scott Thurm and Yukari Iwatani Kane, looks at a number of mobile apps on both the Apple and Android systems, and discovers that many applications share a great deal of personal, individually-identifiable, information without the user’s awareness.
Smartphone users are all but powerless to limit the tracking. With few exceptions, app users can’t “opt out” of phone tracking, as is possible, in limited form, on regular computers. On computers it is also possible to block or delete “cookies,” which are tiny tracking files. These techniques generally don’t work on cellphone apps.
Different operating systems, and different applications that run on them, all have their own ideas about and levels of privacy. But users are largely left out of the conversation. The greatest benefactors are advertisers, and the companies they hire to aggregate the collected information.
A growing industry is assembling this data into profiles of cellphone users., the ad exchange, matches more than 25 ad networks with some 15,000 apps seeking advertisers. The Palo Alto, Calif., company collects phone IDs, encodes them (to obscure the number), and assigns them to interest categories based on what apps people download and how much time they spend using an app, among other factors.
Pandora for iPhone is one of the worst offenders, but the WSJ reviewed just over 100 apps, and they all gave away some tracking information not controllable by the user. The report includes a great summation video that we have embedded here:
But we encourage you to read the full report. Few of us will give up the convenience of smart phone (certainly not me), but we should be well aware of how our habits are being followed, aggregated, and traded on.