Are You Catching Pokémon, or is Pokémon Catching You?

Most people who use the internet know and understand that the websites we visit collect data about us, data about our online behaviour which in turn builds up a profile of us as people. Many of us also understand that this data is then used to advertise to us, as consumers. Brands are using this data to sell us everything from coffee to cars. But how far does the data collection go? Is it just websites that reveal who we are and what we desire?

Data cAPPture

One area that is often overlooked when it comes to data collection is app usage. Apps are now such an integral part of the way we go about our daily business that it’s easy to overlook the fact that they too collect data about us. Understanding what data apps collect might make you think twice about which apps you download and use, and which you quickly delete from your new smartphone!

Many apps are designed to do one simple thing. They might turn your phone into a torch, or wake you up in the morning. But what about game apps like Pokémon, Minecraft and Angry Birds? Surely, they are just offering you a few minutes of escapism? But have you ever noticed, when you install these apps, how many of them ask to access your calendar, your camera or your location? It’s this stealth tactic that enables the companies behind the apps to access valuable data that they can then monetise and sell on to third parties.

Where, how long and how fast?

If we look at Pokémon Go, one of the most successful and high-profile app releases in recent years, as an example of the type of data you could be giving up without even knowing it, the analysis is very revealing. Pokémon Go records a person’s geospatial data. It records where you’ve been, how long you were there and what speed you were travelling. This is great information for advertisers as it enables them to deliver immediate content to you about businesses in the area you are located; shops, restaurants, cinemas etc.

This is not unique, or new. One of Google’s biggest challenges in recent years has been to deliver local advertising based on the data it has about you when to are on your mobile device, and it’s doing it very successfully. But where Pokémon Go differs from Google’s local search listings, is in its ability to influence where you go with the app. Pokémon Go players will know that by placing in-game incentives, the developers are able to encourage players to travel to real-life locations. One of the first businesses to capitalise on this was McDonalds. The fast-food giant sponsored Pokémon Go in Japan, and in return its 3,000 Japanese stores were turned into Pokémon gyms; meeting places for Pokémon Go players.

Do you read the small print?

A recent study showed that as many as 24%* of popular apps do not have a privacy policy. But ask yourself, when was the last time you even looked at the privacy policy of an app that you downloaded? Thought so. In 2014, the Starbucks app was found to be collecting passwords, email addresses and GPS details via it’s app. It addressed the situation soon after, but Wired recently found that most of the UKs top 10 dating apps had issues regarding personal information of users.

Apps like Pokémon Go have been very clever when it comes to data capture. Pokémon Go insists you sign in using a Google account (or create a new one), the data capture aspect is maximised via this route. But even apps that appear to be dormant or non-intrusive can still be collecting data without your knowledge. So, if you are no longer willing to give up your personal data so easily, what can you do?

Check the privacy policy – Make sure the app at least has a privacy policy. It can often be a lengthy read (has anyone ever read the iTunes T&Cs?) but next time you see an app privacy policy pop-up, take a look. Would you sign an official document without reading it?

What are you revealing? - Sort out your privacy settings! Don’t assume the apps are waiting for your permission to access your data. Unless you block them, or tell them not to, they are most likely going to get as much data on you as they can.

Apps for privacy – There are messaging and browsing apps that now make a big thing of their privacy policy, it’s their USP, and some are designed with a zero-tolerance approach to accessing and sharing your data. Look them up. DuckDuckGO is a good place to start.

App Updates – Make sure you’ve got the latest versions of your installs. As time goes on, app developers will have to comply with more privacy policies, they won’t be updating old apps!

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*2016 Future of Privacy Forum