Apps as tracking devices
A study by computer scientists from Intel's research labs, Penn State University and Duke University has revealed the levels of data sharing by Android apps. The team took 30 of the most popular Google Android apps and developed a program, TaintDroid, to track their data sharing.
The results are startling. Although none of the 30 apps surveyed was a location-based or geotagging app, two thirds of them shared location information. Several sent the device identification number or the user's phone number to their servers. Some apparently update their location information every 30 seconds, whilst one was criticised for transmitting user data as soon as it was downloaded.
In addition, half of these popular apps were sending location information to advertising networks such as AdMob. The list of apps studied includes MySpace and Yellow Pages, as well as other sites that might benefit from selling ad space made more relevant by selling location-relevant ads.
Google phones with GPS already pinpoint searched-for destinations on a map of the user's surrounding area, in addition to featuring expandable maps within PPC ads. However, this study has revealed that Google Android is sharing the location of users without their consent, and in the majority of cases without their knowledge. It could also be argued that the 30-second updates of some apps are more frequent than is remotely necessary for any marketing purposes.
Meanwhile, the Google Transparency Report recently revealed that the UK government has made 1,343 requests this year for user data. Used in criminal cases, these data may now potentially contain minute-by-minute location mapping as well as search history and email interactions. Google is expanding the Android Apps Market to include 18 new countries this month.