These malicious tracking apps have already been downloaded over a billion times

Location Data
(Image credit: Shutterstock / Illus_man)

Smartphone apps have become a central part of our daily lives as we are increasingly compelled to install them for travel, banking and even our health records. However, while these apps are convenient, many of them contain deep privacy issues as they allow companies to track our every move.

After establishing its Digital Security Lab last year, ExpressVPN has released new original research highlighting how smartphone apps are used to track users all over the world. The VPN company has dubbed its investigation into these apps “Investigation Xoth” after the intelligence group from Cory Doctrow's novel Attack Surface.

The ExpressVPN Digital Security Lab was able to identify location tracker SDKs in 450 different apps that have been downloaded at least 1.7bn times. The fact that smartphone apps are being used to track consumers threatens not only their privacy but also their autonomy.

To make matters worse, these apps come from a wide range of categories and users who have them installed on their smartphones are likely having their movements monitored. For instance, as you travel, tourism and food apps recommend restaurants while sending your location to IoT beacon devices and health and fitness apps build behavioral profiles that are mapped to your movements.

Location trackers

According to ExpressVPN's research, location trackers are prevalent in messaging, dating and social apps downloaded by consumers worldwide.

Messaging apps are a significant carrier of location trackers and researchers at the company's Digital Security Lab found they were present in 42 different messenger apps with at least 187m downloads. These include apps masquerading as popular messaging services such as Telegram, Facebook Messenger and WeChat. One such example is the popular video messaging and streaming app Tango that has at least 200m users.

When it came to dating and social apps, the findings of ExpressVPN's investigation revealed that widespread targeting was present in 64 different apps with at least 52m downloads. However, this targeting cuts across national, ethnic and racial groups to create a global presence.

The companies responsible for location trackers are also sharing data between themselves as well as with law enforcement, the military and intelligence organizations.

Users concerned that their apps may be tracking them can check out ExpressVPN's full list to determine whether any of them are installed on their devices. Even if you're not ready to delete these apps outright, you can still limit their location permissions to better protect your privacy online.

Anthony Spadafora

After working with the TechRadar Pro team for the last several years, Anthony is now the security and networking editor at Tom’s Guide where he covers everything from data breaches and ransomware gangs to the best way to cover your whole home or business with Wi-Fi. When not writing, you can find him tinkering with PCs and game consoles, managing cables and upgrading his smart home.