KSL INVESTIGATES

Your Phone Is Talking, Even If You’re Asleep

Jul 16, 2019, 10:39 PM

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Alright everyone, pull up a chair, grab your phone, and let’s talk about those tiny little squares on your screen for a moment. Man, we love apps, don’t we? They’re useful, informative, entertaining, educational, and let’s be honest, a lot of apps are a complete time-suck.

But time, may not be the only thing these apps are sucking.

“There’s a lot more information gathered about us than what we think,” said Trent Leavitt, a digital forensics and electronic discovery manager at business firm Eide Bailly.

Trent Leavitt

The information he’s talking about, is your personal information. It could be your contacts, photos, places you’ve been, items you’ve purchased, and things you’ve searched.

“They’re gathering analytical patterns about us,” said Leavitt.

Analytical patterns gathered by various apps during all times of the day.

Every day.

In the morning, afternoon, even the still of the night.

And most of us probably don’t have a clue it’s being taken.

“Yes, yes, yes just give me my app. I just want to play a game, or I just want to use this app for whatever the intended purpose is,” says Leavitt. “Most people don’t care about the backend of it.”

Now, the backend he’s talking about has to do with third-party companies.

According to a group of independent researchers called the Haystack Project, 70% of Android apps are collecting your personal information, and the developers often sell that personal information to third-party companies.

And not just Android. Even iPhones promising privacy and security are doing it, meaning a lot of stuff about you is being shared with people and businesses you do not know.

Mike Headrick and Trent Leavitt

Some would call that concerning, as many don’t want their personal information taken and shared with others. But the fact is, you likely gave these app developers permission.

Most apps have a “Terms Of Use” policy and/or an “End User License Agreement.”

The font is small, the words are big, and if you haven’t passed the bar, you may have some legal questions.

Quick example, if you’ve ever downloaded the app and played HQ Trivia on your phone, you agreed to a legal policy. And like many other legal documents it’s really, really, really, really…

“Really, really long,” says Leavitt, “and it’s really fine print and no one wants to read it.”

But maybe we should.

There’s an entire section called: “PERSONAL INFORMATION WE COLLECT ABOUT YOU AND HOW WE USE IT.”

For example, they track the website you came from and the website you go to, after a game of HQ.

They track the time you play, how long you play, and the location you play.

They’re also collecting information about the computer, tablet or smartphone you use.

One of the lines in the document reads, “We use this information to determine products and services that may be of interest to you for marketing purposes.”

Marketing purposes.

That seems to be the primary reason for collecting your personal data.

Hoping to get a little perspective, we caught up with Patrick Jackson, Chief Technology Officer for Disconnect, a software company out of San Francisco.

“Users of these apps are just going to be abused,” he told us. “They don’t realize how much data is being taken from them and they’re not getting anything in exchange.”

Jackson calls the trackers, “creepy.”

So, his company created a non-creepy app called Privacy Pro.

In short, it blocks those privacy-invasive trackers, invisibly collecting data inside your apps and browsers.

To see it in action, the KSL Investigators gave it a shot, downloaded the app, and watched just how many trackers were trying to take our information.

In less than a week, more than 4-thousand trackers had been blocked on a single phone.

That’s hundreds of trackers every single day, not to mention the data they’re eating up at a rate of nearly 3 Gigabytes a month on our phone.

“If this was in the physical world,” said Jackson, “and you saw people walking behind you, recording you, I think you would shout at them and say, ‘Stop following me! This is creepy!’ You wouldn’t even care what they were doing with that data, I think you would just be creeped out they were collecting it in the first place.” What the Privacy Pro app could not tell us, is which apps were infested with trackers and what specific data was being mined.

And while a lot of us would find that information very valuable, in the end, Leavitt says we’re probably not going to get it.

“This is the world we live in until legislation changes,” said Leavitt, “where the end user license agreement doesn’t have to be 14 pages long and in a number six font. We need to understand what we’re agreeing to in plain and simple terms, and not need an attorney over our shoulder to explain it to us. This is the world we live in.”

The world we live in, until app designers are either forced to become more transparent, or we stop downloading apps altogether.

Leavitt said, “You can go back to just a dumb phone, just a flip phone. No internet access. You get text messages and phone calls and that’s about it.”

If you’re not willing to go back a few decades to the rotary dial, there are a few things you can do to better protect your data:

· Turn off background app refresh.

· Delete any old or unused apps from your phone.

· Turn on “limit ad tracking” if you have an iPhone.

· Download an app like Privacy Pro, to block privacy invasive trackers.

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Your Phone Is Talking, Even If You’re Asleep