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."


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