An article in the Wall Street Journal, dated April 5, 2011, disclosed that Federal prosecutors in New Jersey are investigating numerous smart phone application manufacturers for allegedly, illegally obtaining and distributing personal private information to third party advertisement groups. The allegations state that mobile applications are gathering data such as GPS location, device identifiers, gender, and even user age without proper notice or authorization from the end user. The Journal tested 101 applications and found that 56 of them transmitted the device unique identifier off the device, while 47 transmitted the phone’s location. Five of the tested applications leaked personal information such as user gender and age.
The folks at the Veracode research team decided to spend a bit of our time today breaking apart one of the accused applications to see what could be found within the code. Given what was written in the Journal article, we thought it would be most interesting to take an in-depth look through the Pandora application for the Android platform. A quote from the article states the following about the Pandora application:
In Pandora’s case, both the Android and iPhone versions of its app transmitted information about a user’s age, gender, and location, as well as unique identifiers for the phone, to various advertising networks. Pandora gathers the age and gender information when a user registers for the service.[...]
So what does this mean to the end user? It means your personal information is being transmitted to advertising agencies in mass quantities. As more and more “free” applications attempt to monetize their offerings, we will likely see more of your personal information being shuttled out to marketing and advertising data aggregation firms. The application developers may not even be aware of the privacy violations they are introducing by using third party advertising libraries. They may merely think they are getting $x per ad impression, not that the ad library is leaking significant information about the user.
In isolation some of this data is uninteresting, but when compiled into a single unifying picture, it can provide significant insight into a persons life. Consider for a moment that your current location is being tracked while you are at your home, office, or significant other’s house. Couple that with your gender and age and then with your geolocated IP address. When all that is placed into a single basket, it’s pretty easy to determine who someone is, what they do for a living, who they associate with, and any number of other traits about them. I don’t know about you, but that feels a little Orwellian to me.