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How Often Does an App Share Your Location? You May Be Surprised

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Even for researchers experienced at examining technology that might be invasive, this warning was alarming: “Your location has been shared 5,398 times with Facebook, Groupon, GO Launcher EX and seven other apps in the last 14 days.”

The warning was sent to a subject as scientists at Carnegie Mellon University were studying the impact of telling consumers how often their mobile phones shared their location and other personal data. Software was installed on users’ phones to better inform them of the data being sent out from their gadgets, and to offer a “privacy nudge” to see how consumers reacted. Here’s how one anonymous subject responded when informed a phone shared data 4,182 times:

“Are you kidding me?… It felt like I’m being followed by my own phone. It was scary. That number is too high.”

Mobile phone users are told about the kinds of things that might be shared when they install apps on their phones, but they have a tendency to “set and forget” the options. That means a single privacy choices, usually made in haste when clicking “install,” governs thousands of subsequent privacy transactions.

“The vast majority of people have no clue about what’s going on,” said Norman Sadeh, a professor in the School of Computer Science’s Institute for Software Research, who helped conduct the study.

But when consumers are reminded about the consequences of choices they make, “they rapidly act to limit further sharing,” the researchers found.

The study covered three weeks. During week one, app behavior data was merely collected. In week two, users were given access to permissions manager software called AppOps. In week three, they got the daily “privacy nudges” detailing the frequency at which their sensitive information was accessed by their apps.

Researchers found that the privacy managing software helped. When the participants were given access to AppOps, they collectively reviewed their app permissions 51 times and restricted 272 permissions on 76 distinct apps. Only one participant failed to review permissions. The “set and forget” mentality continued, however. Once the participants had set their preferences over the first few days, they stopped making changes.

But privacy reminders helped even more. During the third week, users went back and reviewed permissions 69 times, blocking 122 additional permissions on 47 apps.

Nudges Lead to Action

“The fact that users respond to privacy nudges indicate that they really care about privacy, but were just unaware of how much information was being collected about them,” Sadeh said. “App permission managers are better than nothing, but by themselves they aren’t sufficient … Privacy nudges can play an important role in increasing awareness and in motivating people to review and adjust their privacy settings.”

Of course, it’s hard to say if the research participants would have kept futzing with their privacy settings, even inspired by nudges, as time wore on. Sadeh suspected they would not: Privacy choices tend to wear people down. Given the new types and growing numbers of apps now in circulation, “even the most diligent smartphone user is likely to be overwhelmed by the choices for privacy controls,” the study’s authors said.

The findings will be presented at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Seoul, South Korea, next month. The research is supported by the National Science Foundation, Google, Samsung and the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology.

For now, what can smartphone users do to better protect themselves? It’s not easy. For example: A study by IBM earlier this year found that roughly two-thirds of dating apps were vulnerable to exploitation, and in many cases, would give attackers location information. The AppOps software used in the Carnegie Mellon study used to be available to Android users, but was pulled by Google in 2013. The firm said the experimental add-on to the Android operating system had a tendency to break apps. So Android users are left to manually review app permissions one at a time — not a bad way to spend time the next time you are waiting for a bus. It’s always a good idea to turn off location sharing unless you know the software really needs it, such as map applications. IPhone users have the benefit of privacy manager software, but it doesn’t offer great detail on how data is used, and it doesn’t offer privacy nudges or any other kinds of reminders. A manual review is best for iPhone users, too.

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