That Popular Android App Could be Sharing Your Data With Others

Right in front of your eyes

  • A new study reveals the top 1000 paid and free apps share our data with third parties with impunity.
  • This information is clearly mentioned in the new data safety section of all apps in Google’s Play Store.
  • Privacy experts believe merely displaying the data-sharing practices isn’t enough to get people to pay attention since most don’t understand the implications.
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Google Play Store's new data safety section was designed to help people identify how their favorite apps share their personal data with third parties. A company has crunched the information in the section of thousands of top apps to reveal and quantify the extent of the problem.

Analyzing the privacy details that Android app developers are now forced to share, the study conducted by privacy experts at Incogni found several alarming trends, including the fact that over half (55.2%) of the analyzed apps share users' data with third parties, and that free apps, on average, share seven times more data points than paid apps.

"Google is one of the world's largest purveyors of surveillance capitalism and have convinced millions of people to carry their devices on them at all times," Dan Arel, a privacy advocate who runs ThinkPrivacy, told Lifewire via email. "The fact that other companies have found ways to utilize their profit method shouldn't come as a shock to anyone."

No Free Lunch

According to the report, about a third of the apps, including popular ones like Instagram, Twitter, Amazon, Facebook, and more, waited right until Google's deadline to fill out their privacy labels, while some well-known ones like Walmart Shopping & Grocery, Dollar General, and Macy's don't give people the option to delete their data.

Taking us through the surprising aspects of the report, Darius Belejevas, product head for Incogni, said some apps that collect the most data, such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter, claim to share the least data (if at all) with third parties.

Belejevas explained this is an example of the apps taking advantage of Google's policy of not having to disclose certain types of data sharing. 

"For example, any transfer made to a service provider or for legal purposes as well as the transfer of anonymous data (even when the anonymous data can be easily re-identified) won't be explicitly stated in Google Play's data safety section," said Belejevas.

Warning people against apps that collect data points like Precise Location, Belejevas also cautioned against some apps, including Facebook and Instagram, whose safety labels imply they use end-to-end encryption on their messages, which is misleading since the feature isn't enabled by default. 

"The new requirements do provide useful information to aid in decision-making; however, they are far from perfect," Dr. Jessica Vitak, Associate Professor, College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, told Lifewire over email. "While I think having this information is generally better than not, the concern is that people treat this information as more reliable than it actually is."

As per a privacy advocate who chooses to identify himself as Seth For Privacy, people have to understand that data is an "extremely" valuable commodity for big tech and social media companies that enables them to profit off of you as a person. 

"When a service is "free," it actually means you're paying with your data, what makes you, you, and that these companies are winning that trade every time," Seth told Lifewire over email.

Creatures of Habit

Stephanie Benoit-Kurtz, Lead Faculty for the College of Information Systems and Technology at the University of Phoenix, believes privacy with mobile devices has become a significant challenge with the expansion of the mobile apps ecosystem. 

"From the frequency of use to geolocation data, these mobile applications are gathering information that is then being shared or sold to other organizations," Benoit-Kurtz told Lifewire over email. "Although these organizations disclose that they are sharing information with third parties, few users read the fine print to realize all the data being shared."

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All our privacy experts unanimously agreed that while the privacy and data implications of the apps, as highlighted by the report, will make some people take pause, most will, sadly, just ignore it.

"It should turn heads, but Google and those like them have found a way to ingrain themselves into our lives and have convinced billions that their data collection is actually for the users' own good," said Arel. 

Dr. Vitak agreed, stressing that many Americans have become disillusioned about how much control they have over their personal data. 

"Many people would identify as "privacy resigned;" they assume there is nothing they can do to protect their data, so they might as well benefit from using the technology since big tech already knows everything about them," said Dr. Vitak. "This sentiment, paired with the convenience, entertainment, and utility mobile apps provide, make it difficult to [encourage] meaningful behavioral changes."

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