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App Awareness

Posted: 08/20/2012

It’s 3 a.m. Do you know what your apps are doing? They might know what you are doing.

Consider smartphone apps to be little databases of information about you. Some of that information is already publicly available and some you may consider to be private. These little databases are compiling as much information about you as they can with your permission via the apps’ Terms of Use.

Apps have friends too. Just like you have friends and those friends may be in groups or circles, many apps have their own set of ‘friend’ apps. These apps share information much the same way you would share an interest with a friend by exchanging information. Depending on location and privacy settings, these apps can be used as a listening bug and tracking device, sharing your real-time information across the globe to be analyzed by unknown entities, and shared with other users.

Location, location, location. When you ‘check-in’ on a location aware app that information is generally shared among other apps. Lots of information is passed around behind the scenes between popular apps such as Facebook and FourSquare - data such as address, phone number, Facebook posts and comments, birthdays, political views, etc. This kind of communication among apps leads to some great benefits like knowing where your friends are, or finding the latest sale near you. However, the down side produces apps like “Girls Near Me,” a location app that combines Facebook profile data and location awareness to produce a graphical map of female friends near your location. This app is no longer available in the U.S. due to privacy concerns but this example emphasizes the importance knowing what information your apps are utilizing and how they are sharing that information.

Sweepstakes and fundraising apps aren’t necessarily benign either.  We are all accustomed to trading our email address for a chance to win - and are comfortable dealing with the inevitable spam influx that results from contest entries and such.  However, the Facebook sweepstakes and contests require quite a bit more about you (and your friends) than you might expect.  When you click to vote or enter you are granting access to your entire profile, your email address, and your friend list.  Depending on your privacy settings, you have just traded all of your personal information, including the names of your friends, for a sweepstakes entry or fundraising vote.

Apps can be great tools for exchanging ideas and customizing your internet experience but it is best to understand who is using that information and when it is being shared. Regularly check your app preferences and privacy settings and set them up in a way you feel comfortable and uninstall apps you are not using.

Technology Services, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 -- TSNOC: 504-862-8888 --