A new study by France's Exodus Privacy and the Yale University Privacy lab has concluded that over three out of four of apps available on the Google Play Store contain third-party tracking plugins, the Guardian reported today. Apps sucking up personal information included some of the most popular ones on the platform, "including Tinder, Spotify, Uber and OKCupid", as well as innumerable others.
Per The Intercept, the trackers involved allowed the apps to identify users based on third-party data, track movements, map interpersonal relationships among users, and track both offline movement and shopping habits. One named Fidzup is powerful enough to track users' movements in retail stores using sonic emitters or Wi-Fi signals and serve them ads based on where they may be roaming within the store. Even apps for seemingly innocuous purposes, such as the AccuWeather and the Weather Channel apps, included trackers monitoring "web browsing and app usage behaviour over time and across digital properties," The Intercept wrote.
As Yale wrote in a press release, particularly concerning were "the potential impact of advertising trackers on the finances and healthcare of users", as several financial and medical apps appeared to have trackers transmitting unknown data.
It isn't hard to surmise why the trackers are so widespread - users are easily suckered into downloading apps, especially free ones, and including trackers turns every user's data into a monetisable commodity - and the ubiquity of the tracking software only underscores how widespread spying on users is in the digital era. The researchers were particularly concerned that the individual streams of data could be merged to build intimate profiles of users.
"I think people are used to the idea, whether they should be or not, that Lyft might be tracking them," Yale Privacy Lab visiting fellow Sean O'Brien told The Intercept. "And they're used to the fact that if Lyft is on Android and coming from Google Play, that Google might be tracking them. But I don't think that they think that their data is being resold or at least redistributed through these other trackers."
There isn't really a lot users can do to control this other than not installing anything other than trusted, open-source apps; according to the analysis, many of the apps on the Google Play Store have only temporary or limited privacy controls that make it difficult or impossible to turn off the tracking. Though the research did not touch iOS or the Apple App Store, per The Guardian, the researchers believe trackers are just as widespread on that platform as well. Just a little reminder that yep, you're being watched, pretty much all the time.