When you download an app onto your smartphone, do you know what personal data you’re handing over? Anette Høyrup of the Danish Consumer Council has been putting apps to the test.
We’ve all experienced it: yet another popular app has found its way onto our smartphone and with a few clicks it’s installed. It may be a fun game, Facebook Messenger or a health app that reminds you to do your daily exercise.
Whatever the type, apps often ask for access to your location, calendar, contact information, microphone and private text messages. In short, you have to consent to give over some of your phone’s data to use any app. The question is; how much data are you really handing over?
Data harvesting technology
I work as an expert on digital matters at the Danish Consumer Council, and a while ago we tested the policies of 35 apps. We’ve also developed our own app, so we could see with our own eyes how app developers can transfer your personal data to the company’s computer. It’s pretty wild to see your private text messages being copied to a company computer just like that!
Apple or Android?
How you control the data you share with apps depends on your phone. On iPhones, you can go to the phone’s settings and under ‘anonymity’ you can withdraw data from each app.
On Android phones you’ll see a list of the permissions each app requires before you download them, allowing you to accept or decline. The latest version of Android (Marshmallow, 6.0) gives you greater control, allowing you to retrospectively grant or deny permission for each app, similar to on iPhones. However, only a few phones come with this new version, or have so far been updated with it.
Difference between physical and digital world
In the real world, where you stand face-to-face with a salesperson in a shop, you’d be very surprised if you were asked to provide information as a condition of being allowed to buy a pair of pants or a loaf of bread. We decided to see how people would react to this with a hidden camera, so check it out for yourself:
There’s no such thing as a free lunch
It could be argued that your private data is a reasonable payment in return for a free app, compared to a loaf of bread you have to pay for. It can allow the company to use your data for targeted advertising and is therefore of value to them. Other times the data is required for the app to work. For example, WhatsApp asks for access to your photos so that you can send and receive photos in the app.
Your data can also provide added functionality. In this case it’s good to be on your guard. Facebook Messenger can ask for access to your private text messages, reportedly to let you text all your phone and Facebook contacts in one place. If you’re not comfortable with handing Facebook Messenger this data, then make sure not to accept it.
Of course, we’re most concerned about the times that apps ask for personal data they don’t necessarily need. Why should a torch app need your GPS location, for example?
The right to privacy
Although privacy legislation hasn’t kept up with digital developments, there are still rules which say that data collection must be objective and necessary. And these rules also apply to US companies.
Moreover, technology that protects consumers’ privacy as a default is a new important principle included in the upcoming modernisation of the EU Data Protection Act.
But what do you think? Do you think that we often have provide too much personal data to use apps? Or do you think our data is just the price we have to pay for living in a digital world? Would you prefer to pay for apps rather than hand over your personal data to get apps for free?
This is a guest contribution by Anette Høyrup of Forbrugerrådet Tænk, the Danish Consumer Council. All opinions are Anette’s own, not necessarily those of Which?