If you’re reading this then you’re probably being tracked. Not from my site, NoodleMac, but certainly by other websites you’ve visited recently, by advertisers, by Google, and by tracking services. Please read this research report because it shows that more than 70-percent of smartphone apps studied– apps on iPhone included– are sending personal data back to third-party tracking organizations.
How does that happen? The how and the why are the easy ones to answer.
Applications, including web browsers like Safari and Chrome, grab data from your usage and send it back to Google, Facebook, and other companies, occasionally for good purposes like Crashlytics (to analyze app behavior), but mostly to eke out a profit by culling personal information, gathering online usage habits, and selling the data to advertisers.
When people install a new Android or iOS app, it asks the user’s permission before accessing personal information. Generally speaking, this is positive. And some of the information these apps are collecting are necessary for them to work properly: A map app wouldn’t be nearly as useful if it couldn’t use GPS data to get a location.
Fair enough, right? Maps can’t help you much if it doesn’t know where you are, and that information gets you the right map data.
But once an app has permission to collect that information, it can share your data with anyone the app’s developer wants to – letting third-party companies track where you are, how fast you’re moving and what you’re doing.
And where you’re going.
That kind of stalking behind the scenes is insidious. Try this test. Go online and search for a single specific product using whatever web browser of your choice; Safari, Google, whatever. Search for something you’ve never searched for in the past.
‘Dynamic microphones’ is a good example.
Search for dynamic microphones on Google, on Amazon, or any other search engines you prefer (except DuckDuckGo), including B&H Photo Video. With Google’s search results, check out a few website stores which sell dynamic microphones.
While you’re conducting your search, those websites and others are loading up your browser with tracking scripts, gathering data from your Mac, iPhone, or iPad, and sending it off to be digested and mixed by a variety of advertising and data tracking entities.
This is what will happen over the course of the next few weeks.
Amazon will think you’re starting a collection of dynamic microphones and start sending you email with additional products. Email spam will begin showing up with offers for dynamic microphones. Even worse, as you browse various websites in your normal way, you’ll begin seeing advertisements– Amazon, B&H, and others– trying to sell you… insert drum roll here… dynamic microphones.
From the aforementioned research paper:
We discovered 598 internet sites likely to be tracking users for advertising purposes, including social media services like Facebook, large internet companies like Google and Yahoo, and online marketing companies under the umbrella of internet service providers like Verizon Wireless.
Surprised? Don’t be. You’re being stalked.
We found that more than 70 percent of the apps we studied connected to at least one tracker, and 15 percent of them connected to five or more trackers. One in every four trackers harvested at least one unique device identifier, such as the phone number or its device-specific unique 15-digit IMEI number.
Which means they know who you are, where you live, and probably have a complete profile on your online habits, as well as information about your wealth, job, purchases, education, credit score, health, and much more.
We found data being shipped across national borders, often ending up in countries with questionable privacy laws. More than 60 percent of connections to tracking sites are made to servers in the U.S., U.K., France, Singapore, China and South Korea – six countries that have deployed mass surveillance technologies.
Is there a fix? I don’t think so; other than knowing about the problem, and taking steps to avoid specific applications that may likely be involved.
Our findings may be merely scratching the surface of what is likely to be a much larger problem that spans across regulatory jurisdictions, devices and platforms.
It’s hard to know what users might do about this. Blocking sensitive information from leaving the phone may impair app performance or user experience: An app may refuse to function if it cannot load ads. Actually, blocking ads hurts app developers by denying them a source of revenue to support their work on apps, which are usually free to users.
As you know, at the beginning of 2016, going on now for almost 18 months, I stopped ad trackers on NoodleMac, stopped analytics trackers, and issued a no-trackers policy. You’re as safe during your visit here as I can make it, but I can only warn you how bad it is everywhere else.