02/03/2017 07:28 EST | Updated 02/03/2017 07:29 EST

Is Your Privacy At Risk Because You Use Apps?

Female's hand using smartphone to find her car in a parking outside
LDProd via Getty Images
Female's hand using smartphone to find her car in a parking outside

Have you noticed how most people don't carry as many things as they used to while traveling? Things like flashlights, cameras, maps, memory sticks, newspapers, magazines, games and books. These items and others have all been replaced by smart phones and devices. While they make our lives more convenient and easier, they also collect information about us.

Convenience in exchange for privacy

Corporations have pioneered innovation and technology that makes people's everyday lives easier and more convenient. The growth in the app market, Internet of Things (IoT), virtual reality, drones, AI and robotics all require that companies collect data about users to improve products and services.

Most customers, if asked would accept giving away some of their privacy in exchange for convenience and better products and services. Every company has their terms of service agreement that a user agrees to (whether they read it or not) before registering for a website service, an app or using a gadget. Regarding free Web applications, like Facebook, Whatsapp, LinkedIn, Airbnb, Lyft or Uber, most users do understand that companies may sell their information to advertisers.

How much is too much surveillance?

When it comes to corporate surveillance, where do we draw the line for organizations that may act in a nefarious and unethical way? How much is too much surveillance and control?

For example, the "Brightest Flashlight" is a simple free Android app created by a one-person company GodenShores Technologies, LLC. 50 million people downloaded the app a few years ago. The company's privacy policy did not highlight in their terms of service the app would "stalk" people by collecting, selling and transmitting users' real-time locations to ad networks and other third parties. In 2012, the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) in the US discovered the company's deceptive practices and forced it to delete the data collected about millions of its users. Since the app was free, no fine was imposed, even though the company likely sold customer information to advertisers.


According to Catalyst Canada, the average Canadian has 18 apps on their mobile device ranging from social sharing, shopping, news, games and fitness. CBC's Marketplace is a recent TV episode, followed several Canadians, who agreed to test and install a free app called My Daily Horoscope. The app was built in one day with guidance from a San Francisco firm, Appthority, and available for Android phones. It was designed to spy on user behavior and like most apps, had a lengthy terms of service agreement.

By accepting the terms of service agreement, users gave the horoscope app permission to access the phone's microphone, contacts, call logs, text messages, camera and location. The app had the ability to track the phone's location, download photos and text messages. More alarming, the app could activate the camera and turn on the microphone.

The CBC's Marketplace accessed data only to show users, who agreed to be testers the privacy and personal information they gave away to use the free app. After the experiment, all information was deleted and the app was discontinued. As might be expected, the test users did not read the terms of service agreement properly. Most were shocked at the level of control and access the free app had to their privacy and personal information.

In an interview with CBC, Daniel Therrien, Canada's privacy commissioner, says his organization can only give warnings to companies that violate privacy legislation. The US Federal Trade Commission goes further by imposing fines as high as $800,000 US for privacy violations. Therrien says his organization is investing complaints about the sharing economy from companies like Uber and Airbnb that may violate privacy legislation in Canada. Ride-sharing apps can track a customer's movement such as your home, workplace, where you shop and the places you frequent regularly. This plus credit card and age information could be a serious risk if the information is hacked and stolen.

Protecting data from government requests

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EEF), an organization that defends civil liberties in the digital world published their annual "Who Has Your Back" report. The 2016 report evaluated the policies and practices of the gig economy and discovered that on average, gig economy companies (e.g. - home rental services, on-demand labor or car sharing) lag behind in safeguarding users data from unwarranted government access requests.

The report showed that half the companies reviewed didn't require a warrant before turning over customer data to law enforcement. Most companies did not create transparency reports showing the number of government requests. At the same time, ride-sharing companies like Lyft and Uber earned the highest rating for transfer and how they handle requests for user data.

A bigger concern and trend is that software companies increasingly are tracking location information about their customers, even when they don't use the app. In December 2016, Uber released a new app update that removed the "While using" option, which limits location tracking of its customers. The current version gives users two choices of "Always" or "Never" with respect to location tracking. Uber says that when a customer selects "Always", the company will only track their location for five minutes after leaving the vehicle to improve customer service.


Mobile devices and wireless gadgets are here to stay. Users of these products want them. Privacy, surveillance and access to personal user data by corporations and governments will remain hot topics. Customers and users of these products and services need to be vigilant about what and how much of their personal information and privacy they give away. They need to be informed and configure their devices to be as secure as possible.

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