Greg's bite: apps that call home
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Greg's bite: apps that call home

By Greg Mills

The day computers began to communicate with each other was an ominous day in the ongoing development of technology. No one could have realized the ramifications that would be the result of that connection.

The Internet, in its inception, was the linking of computers limited to the military and colleges.  Slowly more and more computers were hooked up. Then the age of personal computers was born in a garage in California and you know the rest.

The issues related to privacy of your computer has been a complicated and controversial issue.  When I tap my fingers on the keyboard of my MacBook Pro or tickle the touch screen of my iPad, it is hard to imagine that in the privacy of my home what I do can be tracked remotely, down to the last key stroke. Should that be? I think not. It turns out if you think privacy on your computer is a problem, your iPhone and iPad are far worse.  

This morning I noticed an interesting article on Fox News that lead to an investigation by the "Wall Street Journal" that is both well done and graphically compelling. To see it go to http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2010/12/18/apps-watching/ ; follow the links on Fox to the "Wall Street Journal" article.

It turns out apps that we download onto our iPhones and iPads may be abusing our privacy without telling us. I was blown away to find out that "Paper Toss" was sending my phone ID and my location to: Apple/iTunes, Apple Quattro, Flurry, Geocade, Google AdMob, Google AdSense and Google Double Click whenever I open it. This makes the cute little finger flick the wad of paper into the trash can seem ominous indeed. I certainly don't remember authorizing all that.

Text+4, the Texting app appears to be one of the worst offenders as it sends your username, password, contacts, age/gender,  phone ID, phone number and current location to Gogll, the app's author. What is more amazing it that it also sends at least part of that information to AdMarvel, Apple, Fluent Mobile, Google/AdMob, Millennial Media, Ngmoco, OpenX and Tapjoy. Note that AdMarvel and Millennial Media get your contacts when ever you use Text+4.  Do you use Text+4?  Did you know all this?  

Angry Birds Lite, the free version, sends your phone ID and location to Google/Chillingo when you play at the game. Did you know playing Bejeweled 2 sends your phone number to Facebook? 

Security of our data seems important only when a particular breech comes to our attention. The fuzzy knowledge that cookies in your web browser are being tracked has  become part of the rite of passage around the Internet. Sure, you can turn off cookies in your browser and face constant requests to accept obscure cookies. You can throw away all your cookies once in a while, which I recommend. But, unless someone is logging your keystrokes to steal the password to your bank account, most people aren't too worried. Perhaps they should be.

Apple and its CEO, Steve Jobs have an awkward stance on privacy. Jobs has come out and stated publicly that data should be private unless a person opts in. Somehow, app developers, in an attempt to maximize income, have gotten around this. Only Apple can fix it. In the Settings on your iPhone, scroll to the bottom for list of apps that want your location and set preferences for those apps. There should be a similar screen for privacy where you can shut off the "phone home" aspects of apps to protect your privacy.  

Frankly, the government is lousy at protecting privacy, but they are looking into this sort of abuse. Turning off the GPS location feature of your iPhone when you aren't using it helps, but Apple really needs to quit talking about privacy and do something about it. Most of the apps that phone home location information send that info to Apple. Apple can't have it both ways; they support targeted ads or they don't. See this page for a graphically amazing demonstration of the problem: http://blogs.wsj.com/wtk-mobile/ .

That's Greg's bite for today.

(Greg Mills, is a Faux Artist in Kansas City. Formerly a new product R&D man for the paint sundry market, he holds 11 US patents. He's working on a solar energy startup, www.CottageIndustrySolar.com using a patent pending process of turning waste dual pane glass into thermal solar panels used to heat water. Greg writes for intellectual web sites and Mac related issues. See Greg's art web site at www.gregmills.info ; His email is gregmills@mac.com )

 
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