Privacy in Our Everyday Apps

You are unknowingly giving large corporations direct access to your private information!

How Safe Are the Apps We Use?

People around the world have become accustomed to downloading all kinds of apps. Whether they need an app to help them exercise, manage finances, network, or play games, there are millions of options to choose from.

Have you ever wondered how safe they really are? It’s too often that the Terms and Conditions are quickly skimmed over as users hit the ‘Accept’ button without knowing what they’re agreeing to.

Countless Apps to Choose From

As the market matures, software programs for developing and launching apps become easier and faster to work with, allowing everyone to see the potential in creating new apps. Nevertheless, whether for quick profits from advertising or to genuinely help solve issues, all apps need users.

These users are what allow the developers to find and fix bugs, to develop new features based on demand, and to maintain the metrics of the app’s performance. Admittedly, some of these apps can be very useful. For example, where would we be without messaging apps?

We have already evolved into a smartphone-driven world where everyone is connected to the internet via their device at all times. The opportunities for becoming successful has skyrocketed, leading to a viable market comprised of over 3 billion potential users. It’s no surprise everyone is hoping to be the next trending app in App Stores.

The Google Play store holds over 3 million applications, while the Apple App Store holds just under 2 million. With so many apps being created on a daily basis, how do we know which apps we can actually trust?

Do You Agree to the Terms and Conditions?

Every app a user downloads requires them to give ‘permissions’ to the application. The responsible thing is to carefully review the entire Terms agreement along with the list of permissions the app requires.

This would allow users to quickly assess whether the permissions the app requires are fair. The problem is that these agreements are written in “legal-ese”, making it very long, complicated, and frustrating for the average person to truly understand. Therefore, the most common outcome is to merely scroll down to the bottom of the agreement, press the ‘Accept’ button.

How many people actually take the time to read through that binding contract?

Though it may not seem like a big deal, by agreeing to something without knowing what you are agreeing to, you are giving that app a dangerous amount of legal access to your device and data.

What Permissions do We Blindly Give These Apps?

Each app requires different permissions to access certain directories or hardware on your phone.

Examples of common permissions are:

  • Storage Access – To save and delete files on your phone
  • Front and Back Camera – To take pictures and send them through the app
  • Device Calls – Allowing the app to send and receive calls
  • Read Data – Scan through your contacts, etc.
  • Network Communication – Internet access wherever available (wifi or 4G)
  • Your Location – GPS tracking
  • System Tools – To prevent the phone from sleeping while you’re using the app, etc.

These permissions may seem harmless at first. After all, how else would you chat with your friends if you can’t send them pictures of your food or voice messages when your hands are full? These apps would then require access to things like your microphone, camera, storage, etc.

It’s understandable these permissions would be necessary for the proper functioning and usage of all its features. However, what happens when we’re not using the app?

These permissions, once accepted, remain permanently enabled. Funny enough, a person who would never open an email attachment from someone they don’t know, might readily download a new app without question.

Why Do They Need These Permissions?

Apps will tell you that they need these permissions to help you have a better user experience. In some cases that may be true. You wouldn’t have a pleasant experience if Google Maps didn’t know your location, or your Uber driver could not find you.

However, there’s also a secondary motive for why many apps ask for access to your data. The reason for this is that most apps, especially free-to-use apps rely on advertising revenue to maintain and grow their operations.

For this reason, they want as much data from you as they can get. This way, they can sell this data to large marketing companies that will analyze it and use it to help paying businesses find their target audience more easily. The reality is that by using their app, they can collect information that makes the app owners, marketing firms, and businesses more money.

So technically, no app is actually free-to-use. Users will always be paying in some way or another by providing them with valuable data.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that many people believe government agencies also use these apps as a backdoor to learn more about persons of interest. This may be especially true in countries with authoritarian governments.

Once you’ve given a foreign software free access to your device, it can potentially turn on your microphone or camera and spy on you without your knowledge! You can see an example of how an app can spy on you on CBC’s Marketplace video.

What Can We Do to Prevent Invasions of Privacy?

Be Cautiously Skeptical

Before downloading anything new, ask yourself, “do I need this? Is it from a reputable company?” If the app is necessary, make sure to thoroughly check the Terms and Conditions to see just what they are asking you to give them.

Check the Permissions on Your Device

Whether it’s your phone, computer, tablet, or other device that helps you stay connected, make sure whenever you download an app you double-check what permissions it’s asking for. For example, be wary of a calculator app that needs access to your microphone or camera.

If there is truly a good reason for the granted permissions, most honest apps will explicitly state why they need it, and how the permission will be used. This information is often located in their features or details.

Though this may seem intuitive, most people either don’t check at all, or accept it and forget what they accepted shortly after. If you wish to download an app that requires many permissions but is from a trusted source (like major apps with millions of users), you can also go to your settings and disable the permissions whenever you’re not using the app.

Stay Safe

We recommend taking advantage of one or all of the following apps that can help you prevent any data breaches and keep your files where they should be, on your phone. Consider using some security apps that (even though these apps also need to be verified) can help reduce the risk of downloading malware or falling victim to a hack.

These apps could be:

  • Virtual Private Network (VPN) – Encrypts data sent and received, and hides your IP address by masking it with a different one. No one can see where you’re actually logging in from. This adds several degrees of protection to your web-surfing activities.
  • Antivirus/Malware Detector – Like with any computer, phones and tablets are also vulnerable to viruses and other malware that may wish to compromise or delete your data altogether. These detectors scan installed apps and look for malicious code.
  • Blocker and Tracking Protection – Most websites use trackers to see where you’re logging in from and present you with targeted ads based on the location. Tracking blocker applications prevent those trackers from operating.
  • Using a Private Messaging App – Apps like Signal, WhatsApp, and Sidekick offer encrypted messaging which allows you text your friends and family in a secure fashion. This adds a level of ease knowing your messages can’t be read by anyone else, even the messaging app itself.
  • Password Managers – An alternative to creating your own passwords (especially since most people use the same password for everything so they don’t forget). A password manager creates high-security passwords and manages them for every app you use. You’ll simply need to remember your “Master” password to access the manager.

Like these, there are many others, each with their own list of features that might suit your needs. Which apps you decide to use will depend entirely on your research and specific requirements.

On a final note, we would also like to remind you to be safe in the traditional sense. Keep your passwords strong and never share them with anyone, never click or download anything that isn’t from a secure or reliable source. And most of all, use common sense practices to ensure you’re always at the safe side of things.

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