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Security & privacy

New study shows just how much your apps collect about you

Apple recently added more privacy protection to iOS devices with the rollout of iOS 14. When you install an app after updating the OS, it will ask for permission to find and connect to other devices.

This has raised many questions with users. Specifically, why apps like Facebook or Twitter need to find other devices on your local network. WhatsApp needs access to the local network to make calls, and some mobile games use it for multiplayer functions. Tap or click here to find out how to stop apps from connecting to your network.

But what about apps that don’t ask for permission? A recent study shows that there are a plethora of apps using your data without your knowledge.

Here’s the backstory

If you’ve ever searched for something like a new pair of shoes on one site, you’ve probably later seen ads for those very shoes on other sites like Facebook. Some people even claim they’ve seen Facebook ads for products they’ve only discussed with someone in person and haven’t searched online for.

Researchers at the University College in London found out that a wealth of your information can be passed on to third-party advertisers by using only your location. You don’t even have to have location data turned on for your device to know exactly where you are.

The study revealed that things like health, ethnicity, political opinions and socio-economic status could all be inferred from your location. The keyword here is “inferred,” as providers can only make educated guesses.

“Leveraging location information, advertisers can serve ads micro-targeted to users based on the places they visited. Understanding the types of information that can be extracted from location data and implications in terms of user privacy is of critical importance,” the study noted.

What can they do with your data?

Part of the study was to see how much personal data can be gathered from locations. To do this, researchers created their own app called TrackAdvisor. They then asked 69 people to use it for 14 days.

The app identified 5,000 data points related to the users’ demographics, personality, religion and health through location data alone. And if their app could do it, almost any mobile app you load onto your device can too.

“Thanks to machine learning techniques, these data provide sensitive information such as the place where users live, their habits, interests, demographics, and information about users’ personalities,” explained researcher Mirco Musolesi.

For example, apps with location data active will know which church you go to, which hospital or medical center you visit and roughly where you live. That can be summed up to know your religion, health status and socio-economic situation.

Political affiliation can be concluded if your location data puts you near or at a political rally, protest or gathering. Where you live is an easy one, as Waze, Google Maps, Apple Maps and food delivery services already have that stored.

What can you do about it?

For some apps, it is critical to know where you are. Otherwise, the app won’t function as intended. You certainly can’t use a navigation app if it doesn’t know your location. For others, it’s not important to know your whereabouts.

There are some ways to limit (but not eliminate) access to your location data. Google came under fire a few years ago when it was revealed certain apps still tracked users after turning the setting off.

To see which apps have access to your location data on iOS:

  • Tap Settings.
  • Scroll down and tap Privacy.
  • Tap Location Services.

When Location Services is opened, it will display a complete list of apps that have used your location data at some point. It will also show you the default setting for each app, which will range from Never, Ask Next Time, While Using the App or Always.

Go through each app and set your desired location access. To switch off location access to all apps at once, toggle the Location Services switch at the top to off.

To see which apps have access to your location data on Android: (Note: the process may differ depending on your phone manufacturer and model.)

  • Swipe down from the top of the screen. 
  • Touch and hold Location. If you don’t find Location:
    • Tap Edit or Settings. Then drag Location into your Quick Settings.
  • Tap App permission.
  • Under “Allowed all the time,” “Allowed only while in use,” and “Ask every time,” find the apps that can use your phone’s location.
  • To change the app’s permissions, tap it, then choose the location access for the app.

Go through each app and set your desired location access. You can also turn off Location Services for all apps at once. Follow these steps from Google to turn off Location Services.

Do research on what apps access

It is also a great idea to read access requests before installing an app on your device. Developers have made this step more transparent over the years. It is now easier than ever to see what is accessed by an app and how it uses that information.

By tapping on Settings and then on Privacy, you will a list of basic functions on your device like camera, contacts, and Photos.

Tapping each function will show you a list of apps that have access to it. For example, it will show all the apps that have access to your camera when you tap on Camera. Here you can also toggle specific access for each app. Say, if you want to grant it camera access but revoke access to your contacts.

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