Researchers observed the prevalence of third-party trackers on nearly one million (959,000) apps from the US and UK Google Play stores. In the paper, published on the 18th October, researchers said:
“We find that most apps contain third-party tracking, and the distribution of trackers is long-tailed with several highly dominant trackers accounting for a large portion of the coverage.”
Google insisted it maintains clear, concise policies on how developers can handle data and that researchers had “mischaracterised” some of the app’s basic functions. In a statement, the California-based company said: “If an app violates our policies, we take action.”
Mobile App Data Harvesting “Out of Control”
While researchers found that 88% of free apps shared data with Alphabet, other tech giants have been reaping the rewards of data sharing policies. Around 43% of apps shared data with Facebook, while others shared sizeable amounts with Twitter, Microsoft and Amazon, along with a number of the latter’s subsidiaries.
News apps shared information with the largest number of trackers, researchers said, along with apps aimed at children and young people. Google said it disagreed with the study’s findings, as well as its methodology and insisted guidelines are clear for developers.
“It mischaracterises ordinary functional services,” the firm said. “Like crash reporting and analytics, and how apps share data to deliver those services.
Google added: “Across Google and in Google Play, we have clear policies and guidelines for how developers and third-party apps can handle data and we require developers to be transparent and ask for user permission.”
A plethora of free apps available across digital services track behaviour, which enables a company or organisation to form a detailed profile of users.
Data can range from age, location or gender to other miscellaneous information regarding similar apps on a persons smartphone. Data such as this can be used to target specific ads or political campaign messages, based on the users activity, researchers said.
Online advertising revenues are immense, generating more than £45 billion per year in the US alone. Professor Nigel Shadbolt, who led the research team, told BBC News that many people are unaware of how their data is used to create detailed profiles; which can then be used to target ads or used by intermediary firms.
“People in business are desperate to get as many eyeballs and click-throughs as they can,” he explained. “I don’t think there’s any notion of control.”
For Google, the Oxford paper follows damning reports on its data protection standards. In early October, the firm announced it would begin winding down Google Plus after it was revealed more than half a million users’ personal information had been leaked due to a bug.