'Nine in ten' Android apps send data to Google

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A new study has revealed that 90 per cent of all Android applications share personal data to Google, raising questions about the volume of information collected by ad-supported software and the ability for tech giants to create profiles of individuals.

Researchers at Oxford University looked at almost one million Android apps available on the Google Play store and found the median app shared user data with ten third parties and a fifth shared it with more than 20.

The researchers told the Financial Times that the popularity of ‘freemium’ applications supported by advertising and the rise of vast advertising networks meant that many people, and often app developers themselves, are unaware of the scale of this data harvesting.

Mobile app data sharing

This information could involve details used to serve personalised advertising, such as age, gender and location, while many applications allow users to login using their Google or Facebook account.

Through these chains, much of this data ended up at major technology companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Amazon. Although much of this data is anonymised, it does raise concerns about what any third party may be able to discover or infer.

Google told the newspaper that it disputed the researcher’s methodologies, arguing that some of the sharing was an app reporting crash statistics and analytics. The researchers responded by saying many of these rights went beyond such use cases.

For European users, the findings raise the issue of how these applications comply with GDPR and how the data is shared beyond the EU, which forbids the transfer of citizen data to counties deemed not to have privacy safeguards equivalent to those in Europe. Although data can be shared with the US thanks to Privacy Shield, this is not true of China.

Mobile operator view

Mobile operators will also have a keen eye on the findings. Operators have long-complained about having to compete with over-the-top (OTT) platforms that profit from mobile networks without contributing to the cost of construction and maintenance and whose applications actually bypass telco services.

They have also argued that OTT players are not subject to the same level of regulation as telcos, which is why GDPR has been welcomed within the industry and why many oppose net neutrality legislation.

The counter-argument is that operators have access to a level of data that OTT players do not – such as the ability to see cell data, browsing habits and billing information. But if major tech companies have access to such huge amounts of data, then what advantage is there?