What does your favorite mobile app know about you? Should you be worried?

What does your favorite mobile app know about you? Should you be worried?

Mobile apps might seem harmless enough, but they could be sharing more information about you than you realize. Even some of the most popular apps from big name publishers are sharing personal information with marketers. Is there really anything to worry about though?

Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal compiled data about what information some well-known iPhone and Android apps are sending back to the developers or third parties. Angry Birds, Pandora, Foursquare and Netflix are among the apps that send details about you from your handset without you necessarily being aware.

Building the piece up with a juicy statement that: “The findings reveal the intrusive effort by online-tracking companies to gather personal data about people in order to flesh out detailed dossiers on them.”, the WSJ goes on to explain how marketers are able to use your in-app behaviour along with, in some cases, basic information like your age, gender and location, to make informed guesses on your economic situation and what your interests are likely to be.

What’s being shared?

It all sounds rather disconcerting, but should you be worried about this? In many cases, no. Some of these apps have perfectly legitimate reasons for transmitting information about you. A interactive table assembled by the WSJ allows you to delve into what data different apps share about you and of the apps they list, very few offer much cause for concern.

Angry Birds, for example, sends your contact information, location among other information. However, developer Rovio explains to the WSJ that this is simply the data it sends to the Crystal game network that provides high score tables for the game – something users have to opt in to, and for app analytics aimed at improving the user experience.

In fact, very few apps in the Wall Street Journal’s list are taking any truly ‘personal’ information. A handful use your contacts list (sometimes for functional reasons like matching you up with other users of the app), another small number send your age and gender. However, most of this information is said to be anonymized before it’s sent to any marketing agencies anyway.

In fact, the one thing we were concerned about in the Wall Street Journal list was that PopCap Games’ Bejewelled 2 for iPhone apparently sends your phone number to a third party. We’re waiting for PopCap to get back to us about that one.

Clearer policies needed

What’s really needed here is for privacy policies in mobile apps to be made much clearer. On iPhone what each individual app will share about you is often quite tough to discern. On Android, apps inform you when they’re installed about the types of information they will use but it’s not always clear how that information will be used.

Should you give up mobile apps altogether? Unless you’re a tinfoil hat-wearing paranoid type, the idea that people want to target ads at you probably shouldn’t keep you awake at night, but one thing’s for sure, users would definitely benefit from clearer, more concise information about exactly is being shared, why and where it’s going

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