A giant investigation by the Wall Street Journal this weekend shows that many of the applications people load their iPhones and Androids with are transmitting user data — as much of it as they can collect — to advertisers. This includes popular apps like TextPlus 4, Pandora and Grindr. Out of 101 apps examined, “56 transmitted the phone’s unique device ID to other companies without users’ awareness or consent. Forty-seven apps transmitted the phone’s location in some way. Five sent age, gender and other personal details to outsiders.” Buried in the 43rd paragraph of the article is the revelation that the Android version of the MySpace app (one of the most recognizable brand names in the entire report) sends age, gender and a device ID — and occasionally even “user’s income, ethnicity and parental status” — to Millennial Media, “a big ad network.” MySpace happens to be owned by News Corporation, the same parent company as the Wall Street Journal, who published the report. That’s shady!
That said, the privacy issue overshadows the journalistic one in this case. There is no way out:
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.
But many app makers, the ones earning money by selling user data to advertisers, don’t think there is anything to worry about:
“There is no real-life I.D. here,” says Joel Simkhai, CEO of Nearby Buddy Finder LLC, the maker of the Grindr app for gay men. “Because we are not tying [the information] to a name, I don’t see an area of concern.”
And, of course, Google receives more user info than any other company:
Google was the biggest data recipient in the tests. Its AdMob, AdSense, Analytics and DoubleClick units collectively heard from 38 of the 101 apps. Google, whose ad units operate on both iPhones and Android phones, says it doesn’t mix data received by these units.
This is obvious to anyone who has glanced at their Gmail ads after sending an “I love you” email and seeing an ad for 1-800-FLOWERS or some shit. Apple, meanwhile, is considering technology that could target ads based on “web history or search history” and “the contents of a media library.”
Everyone should — and if computer savvy does — know that this is happening. But reading in detail about the scale and organization of these operations is nonetheless frightening, even as it seems unavoidable. Every day it becomes more obvious that we do, in fact, live in public.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 19, 2010