Modern field guide to security and privacy

Want to stop apps from sharing your data? There’s an app for that, too

Northeastern University researchers launched an app called ReCon to track and limit the personal information that's collected and shared by other smartphone apps. 

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

David Choffnes keeps watch over his online privacy more than most – so much so that he designed a program to block apps on his iPhone from hoovering up his personal data.

For instance, said the assistant professor of Computer Science at Northeastern University, companies that request location data can track his whereabouts whenever that app is open, even if they don't need the data.

The trouble is, he says, it's extremely difficult for most smartphone users to know exactly what kind of information apps are collecting, when they are collecting it, and whether third-party advertisers are receiving that personal data, too.

Choffnes hopes to give consumers more control over their data by publicly releasing the antitracking technology that he helped develop. On Monday, along with a team of researchers, Choffnes launched a beta version of ReCon, which is designed to help users spot the kind of data apps collect and then block the sharing of that information. 

The team released the app on Monday at Data Transparency Lab's 2015 conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with a report that reveals the scope of the so-called "data leakage" problem extends far beyond the United app. In fact, the Northeastern team found that 47 of the top 100 apps on Apple's App Store share some personal information with third parties, and 26 of the most popular apps shared location data. 

Data leakage is also common among Android apps, according to the report. Fifty-two of top 100 Google Play apps leak device information, 15 share user details with third parties, and 14 disclosed location data.

Over the past four years, according to a study at Vienna University of Technology, University of California Santa Barbara, and VU University Amsterdam, the percentage of Android apps that share personal data with advertisers increased more than 300 percent, growing from 130,000 apps to about 500,000.

The Northeastern study did not examine whether apps that share personal data, or collect information when the app isn't in use, violated any of the apps' privacy policies.

ReCon is still in its nascent stages, but Choffnes hopes that his approach, will give users insight into how much of their personal information that they give to smartphone apps gets passed along to third parties.

The Northeastern study is not unique in identifying the pervasiveness of data leaks. According to research from Harvard University’s Data Transparency Lab, 73 percent of popular Android apps share e-mail addresses and other personal information with third parties, and 47 percent of iOS apps shared location data. 

For Choffnes, who says apps should only collect enough information about users required for basic functioning, ReCon could help stop a trend toward potentially invasive advertising.

"At least for me, [passing data] moves from something that’s innocuous, to something that’s pretty creepy," Choffnes says. "I’m not so certain that I want various companies to be able to have that amount of information about what I’m doing online and where I am when I’m doing it."


You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Want to stop apps from sharing your data? There’s an app for that, too
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today