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Several iPhone and Android apps sharing private user data

David Quilty

An investigation by The Wall Street Journal has found that some iPhone and Android apps are spying on users and potentially transmitting personal data to other companies. While both Apple and Google say that they have privacy protections in place for their customers, many apps are able to skirt around them either on purpose or by claiming ignorance as the maker of Pumpkin Maker (a pumpkin-carving app) did -- he said that he didn't know that he needed user permission before sharing the data he collected inside his app. But in speaking to the WSJ, Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr said that "We have created strong privacy protections for our customers, especially regarding location-based data. Privacy and trust are vitally important."

iPhone apps transmitted more data than the Android apps tested, and two apps in particular stood out: Pandora and TextPlus 4. Pandora (a music streaming app) and TextPlus 4 (a text messaging app) sent the phone's unique ID number, along with the user's age, gender and zip code to several different advertising companies. Out of 101 apps tested in the study, the WSJ found that over half sent the ID number out to companies without the user's consent.

Privacy concerns are often at the forefront of users' minds and rightly so, but I do think most people understand that companies collect some information and that whatever is collected is actually beneficial to their user experience. Apple itself recently detailed its location collection policies, which it uses to provide location-specific information, to members of Congress after the House of Representatives looked into the company's privacy policy. And as a personal example, I use the Yelp app quite a bit to discover new restaurants in my area. I do know that they are collecting location information from me, and it is probably being kept in a database somewhere. I also believe that it helps Yelp tailor my (and others') experience with their app, as they want users to share information with them and so do I -- without some of this info the app wouldn't be all that valuable.

Do I want these app companies sharing my name, age, gender, mailing address, birthdate or sexual preference with ad networks everywhere? Not really, and I do believe we should have the ability to opt out of sharing anything if we so choose. Apps that are doing that without gaining my permission to do so shouldn't be allowed on the App Store. But a little location-based marketing in the apps that it is needed in does go a long way to making a more positive user experience. Macworld thinks that the concerns raised by the WSJ are overblown. What do you guys think?

[via GigaOm and Macworld]

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