If you’re a smartphone user, you’ll probably find that the little mobile device not only remains with you for the larger part of each day but that it also plays some kind of a role in practically every aspect of your daily life.
Whether that simply means checking the time or checking in with your social media and messaging services while you go about your routine business, or extends further to keeping notes on your day’s progress or issuing comments, updates, or messages documenting your success, what you do on and with your smartphone can easily form a journal of your existence.
But since smartphones are capable of storing and transmitting far more information about the activities we perform with them, our devices, mobile operating systems, and related services themselves can contribute to creating an even more rounded “digital profile” of our lives and identities. Think timestamps, GPS coordinates and geo-location, metadata (information about information) associated with calls and messages, and behind the scenes exchanges between our mobile apps and various third parties.
With much of this activity going on without our knowledge – and with data often being transmitted across unsecured wireless channels or the open internet – there’s potential for huge gains to be made, from exploiting this information. Little wonder then, that there’s an entire ecosystem dedicated to Smartphone Data Tracking – the tracking, logging, and processing of the data gathered from smartphones. In this article, we’ll be looking at what’s involved, and how you can protect yourself.
Motivations for Smartphone Data Tracking
It’s fair to say that information is at least on an equal level with money, as a source of value for commercial organizations, government institutions, and other agencies. The rich harvest of data that’s on offer from smartphones and connected mobile devices may be traded and used for any number of motivations.
Information gleaned through smartphone tracking can reveal things about our personal identities, physical locations, buying habits, general behavior, preferences, prejudices, interests, hobbies, contacts, and social interactions. Knowledge like this may be analyzed to make logical connections or assumptions revealing an individual’s personal or professional background, educational level, age, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, and a host of other associations.
Profiles and statistics assembled in this way are routinely used by marketing agencies and advertising networks in crafting campaigns, defining demographics, and pushing targeted promotions. Governments, law enforcement, financial bodies, and insurance companies can use such data in investigations, risk or credit assessments, and group or personal vetting for security or policy-making purposes.
And criminal elements gaining access to such information can use it to perform direct acts of theft, sabotage, or extortion, or in laying the groundwork for longer-term or more expansive schemes. These could include identity theft, the preparation of documents for human trafficking, or getting the locations and physical layouts of targeted sites for robbery, acts of terrorism, or other activities.
Sources of Information
Modern smartphones feature a host of information-gathering, monitoring, and recording tools – with new ones being developed as we speak.
Information concerning our physical and geographical location, calls and messages, activities on social media, browsing habits, search histories, and financial transactions may be added to the data collected via on-board cameras, fingerprint scanners, or microphones – to say nothing of our app preferences and the way that we habitually use a particular device.
Wheels Within Wheels
Smartphone data tracking begins at the device and operating system level, with Android for example linking to your Google account credentials and logging information such as your geo-location, the length and nature of your phone calls, and what type of phone you’re using, as soon as you sign in.
The extent to which devices and mobile apps collect and log information remains largely at the discretion of the phone manufacturer or app developer. A recent study suggests that over 70% of smartphone apps routinely report personal data to third-party tracking companies like Google Analytics, the Facebook Graph API, or Crashlytics.
Mobile apps will generally ask your permission to do things with your data, before you agree to install them. But the manner in which they do this – and the clear language or transparency of the permission requests they set out – vary widely, from developer to developer. “Good” permissions will be designed to enable an app to function correctly. But once you’ve given your consent, there’s usually nothing which can then prevent a developer from sharing and/or selling your data on to interested third parties.
And there’s an entire ecosystem out there, dedicated to facilitating the trade in user smartphone data. Websites and a large number of mobile apps use third-party libraries – collections of tools, code, and facilities provided by various developers and manufacturers. These libraries enable app developers to “plug in” the functions that they need without writing code from scratch – and can cover a range of activities such as tracking user engagement, earning money through ad placement, or connecting with social media.
Connections within the same third-party library can give the developer of one application access to information that you’ve agreed to have collected by another.
Of that 70-plus percent of devices which report to third-party tracking companies, 15% report to five or more different trackers, at the same time. And 25% of trackers are capable of extracting at least one unique identifier for a device, such as your personal phone number.
Some tracking sites come under the same corporate umbrella, with for example Alphabet owning major tracking domains like Google Analytics, DoubleClick, and AdMob.
In addition, data may easily be transferred across international borders – perhaps to governments or jurisdictions that routinely practice mass censorship and surveillance, or have weak or non-existent privacy laws.
And of course, all of this ignores the potential negative uses of the data that’s being gathered, itself. Besides providing raw material for cyber-criminals, identity thieves, and fraudsters, information used to construct personal profiles may be exploited by commercial organizations, governments, or other institutions to preferentially include or exclude individuals from their services, based on race, gender, economics, or social factors.
Pulling the Plug
Given the largely hidden nature of smartphone data tracking, it’s not necessarily that easy for individual users to protect themselves.
Going to the Settings menu of your device and deactivating location settings, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi is a start – but you’ll need to be careful that this doesn’t kill off any apps that require these services, to function properly.
There are some third-party apps available for blocking or tracking the trackers themselves, as well as the ad-blocking software that’s become increasingly popular.
And as a baseline policy to minimize your information “footprint”, you can try to restrict your smartphone activities to voice and text.
The VPN Option
For safeguarding the privacy of information that you transmit online, the strong encryption of a Virtual Private Network or VPN solution remains your best option. Scrambled data makes it much harder for third parties to make sense of or extract value from it – and the resources they’ll have to invest in making the attempt may discourage them from doing so.
With the VitalSecurity app, you’ll have the unique combination of a fully-fledged VPN service and a fully-featured web browser, all in the one app. The browser also incorporates a privacy scanner, which runs real-time monitoring on each website that you visit, identifying and notifying you of which sites are attempting to track you, or harvest your data.
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