Always Read the Fine Print

When it comes to privacy policies, make sure you know what you're looking at. (via Wikimedia Commons)

When it comes to privacy policies, make sure you know what you’re looking at. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Of course Google Maps and Yelp need your location information to function properly, but do photo editors, news outlets, and flashlight apps really need your GPS coordinates?

In coordination with 25 other privacy agencies around the world, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada assessed 1,211 mobile apps and reported that 26% of the apps privacy information made their researchers “uncomfortable.” To make this assessment, they considered the types of data (such as location or contacts) the app requested permission to access, whether the app explained why it needed this data, and whether a transparent, readable privacy policy was available before download.

It’s hardly necessary for many apps on the list to know your location in order to function, yet more and more request this permission. App development libraries are increasingly including location-tracking functionality, making it easy to build into the app. The reason? Location information and data mined from your contacts, social media profile, and photos is valuable to advertisers. App developers can earn far more by accessing and selling your data than with $0.99 purchases or regular ads alone.

Consumers should be aware of how many apps are tracking their whereabouts. iPhone users can navigate to Settings > Privacy > Location Services to see a list of the apps that access location information and toggle these permissions on or off. From the Privacy menu, you can also see which apps have access to your contacts, calendars, photos, and other data on your device. Android users, similarly, can go to Settings > Location services to turn off GPS tracking.

It’s illuminating to look at the policies of a few of the most popular online services. For example, Google‘s infamous Terms of Service gives the company sweeping control over your data:

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Dropbox is another service used regularly by professionals, including a self-reporting 26% of lawyers. In its Terms of Service, Dropbox gives itself permission to access and and scan your files (as is necessary, it says, to support its features). These liberal permissions also extend to the (unspecified) third parties Dropbox works with.

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With every app download, consumers sacrifice some privacy for the functionality and convenience of the service. It’s critical to read the privacy policies of the apps you use in order to make an informed decision about how much privacy you are willing to give up.

2014-10-30T21:16:28+00:00

About the Author:

Ali Sawyer is GIAC Certified Forensic Examiner at LMG Security who specializes in digital forensics, incident response, and cybersecurity education. She has worked for IBM as a software developer and holds her degree in Computer Science from Columbia University.

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