Smartphone apps: Is your privacy protected?

Are your apps putting your privacy at risk? We look at the dangers and solutions for Android, BlackBerry and iOS mobile platforms.

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Location data

The one set of data that apps can access automatically is your location. Many apps that are location-based do attempt to determine your location as soon as you launch them (weather apps, turn-by-turn navigation tools and business review guides come immediately to mind).

The Apple Photos app could be the most notorious for unsuspected use of your location information, since it embeds your location in any photo you take (a common smartphone function known as geotagging). Other apps may only request your location when you use a specific feature, like the location check-in option in many social network apps.

You can protect your location privacy by disabling location services in the iOS Settings app, but this can limit much of the functionality of an iPhone or iPad. So Apple gives you the ability to pick and choose the apps that you will allow to access that information.

The first time an app attempts to retrieve your location, it will ask for permission. This is a core tenet of Apple's developer guidelines that all apps must adhere to before getting into the App Store. If you say yes, then the app can access your location whenever it needs to. (If you say no, then it can't, but it may request permission again in the future.)

You can always tell when an app is accessing your location information because an arrow icon will appear in the status bar at the top of the screen next to the battery indicator.

If you later want to revoke an app's access to your location data (or if you decide to grant such access), you can launch the Settings app and select the Location Services item. All apps for which you've allowed or denied access will be listed, and you can adjust the permissions for each one. You'll also see a purple arrow icon next to each app that has accessed your location during the previous 24 hours, giving you a way to monitor apps even if you fail to notice the icon in the status bar.

Passing information to other apps

While iOS apps can do very little in the background, they can launch other apps and pass some data to them. An app could launch the App Store and link directly to another app by the same developer, for example. Or an app could launch the phone app and pass along a number to dial.

Most of the time, apps make it pretty obvious that they're going to do these things and, as with accessing external personal or system features, it usually only happens in response to action that you've taken (like tapping on a link). However, sometimes it may not be clear that an app is going to launch something else, and you may find yourself surprised to suddenly have some other app open.

Unfortunately, there isn't a lot that you can do to prevent these surprises other than making sure you're aware of content onscreen. An app that launches the App Store is likely to reference a developer by name, for example.

One upside is that this won't happen in the background -- you'll be aware that you've switched apps. That gives you the ability to close the newly opened app -- usually before it has done more than load some content. Another upside is that although apps can pass on limited data, they can't trigger any real actions in the second app (you'll be asked if you want to dial a phone number, for example) beyond loading content.

Online services

To an extent, Apple can safeguard apps from accessing too much personal data stored on a device itself, but many apps will request access to personal data stored in online services. The Pulse Newsreader app, for example, can store your login credentials for Google Reader (which are generally the same as other Google services), Instapaper, Twitter and Facebook. The popular Words With Friends game can similarly store your Facebook details to enable you to connect and play games with your Facebook friends.

For the most part, apps that request access to various online services and accounts have a good reason for doing so and require your active consent. However, before entering any account details, review the app's description to be sure that you understand just what it will be accessing, why it is doing so and what it will do with that information. Also, it doesn't hurt to read some of the reviews listed for an app to see if anyone is reporting anything untoward or unexpected.

Ryan Faas

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

Al Sacco covers mobile and wireless technologies for CIO.com, with a focus on BlackBerry handhelds and other smartphones. Follow Al on Twitter at @ASacco.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to Peachpit.com. Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress, 2009). You can find out more about him at RyanFaas.com and follow him on Twitter (@ryanfaas).

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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