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Security & privacy

Watch out for these apps that collect your data even when told not to

If you’ve got an Android phone, you already know how flexible and expansive the mobile operating system can be. An enormous range of customization, features, and applications are available to you that iPhone users can’t even take advantage of — and they’re all found in one place: the Google Play Store.

As diverse as the software offerings are from Google Play, the store has received its fair share of criticism for hosting apps that span from poorly made, to being buggy, and even downright malicious. Some apps have been found that steal data, track your activity, or even charge you money for free services. Sometimes, it can feel as if Google is barely screening the apps it accepts at all!

Well, if you’re trying to avoid troublesome apps from Google Play, your “do not download” list just got way bigger. Researchers have discovered more than a thousand apps that go behind your phone’s settings to skim private data — even if you tell them not to! We’ve got the latest details on this research, and what it can mean for your mobile privacy going forward.

Why are so many Android apps tracking my data?

When you install an app from Google Play, one of the first things you’ll see is a notification asking you for permissions. You’ve probably seen this many times before, like when the app asks you if it’s okay to “use your location,” for example.

Every app is supposed to alert you in the event that it utilizes your data in some way, but new research is showing that a large majority of apps may not be as forthcoming about their data habits as we’d expect.

In a new study, researchers from the International Computer Science Institute found that over 1,000 Android apps continued to gather data from users even after being denied permission to do so! What’s more, these apps are intentionally designed to be as obscure as possible in how they use this data, and where they might be sending it.

The researchers are understandably shocked and upset, going as far as to say that asking for permission is “meaningless” if the apps are just going to circumvent Android’s own regulations.

The reasons behind this intense data gathering are scant, at the moment, but based on the kind of data collected (location, photo metadata and tags), it can be reasonably assumed it’s related to advertising or demographic studies.

What can I do to stop all these Android apps from tracking me?

As the researchers correctly point out, if an app can circumvent any privacy settings on your end, setting them up in the first place is pointless. The onus now lies on Google to enforce the standards it’s set for its platform, and maybe even enable some software solutions in Android itself in case moderating the Google Play Store is too big of a task.

Thankfully, the company is showing some promise on that frontier.

The new Android Q version, due to arrive later this year, has a planned update that automatically hides location information in photos and requires additional permissions be asked when the phone is connected to Wi-Fi. While not a “catch-all” solution, these planned additions can help to curb misbehavior from data-hungry apps.

In addition to Google’s update, the researchers behind the study plan to publish their list of offenders in August —  which will detail the apps that were discovered to be blatantly harvesting data. With this list, users can make the choice of whether to delete the problematic apps from their devices.

Until these solutions make their way to our screens, it’s best to tread cautiously when browsing the web on your phone in the meantime.

Alternatively, for the maximum amount of privacy, you can always just turn off your phone when you don’t want to be “followed.” It’s a surefire way to keep yourself off the radar — but make sure to let your loved ones know you’re going dark first. After all, you don’t want to miss dinner with the family, right?

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