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    The App That Tracks Who's Tracking You

    Written by

    Meghan Neal

    contributing editor

    Photo via flickr/Addie Hamzad

    It's no secret that apps like maps or local weather know your current location, and you're probably cool with that because you want to use the handy services they provide in exchange. But chances are there are many other apps on your phone, anything from dictionaries to games, that are also geolocating your every move without your knowledge or permission. Now researchers are developing a new app to police these smartphone spies, by tracking which apps are secretly tracking you, and warning you about it.

    Before your eyes glaze over at the mention of yet another privacy tool, it's worth noting that this new app is the first to be able to provide this line of defense between snooping apps and smartphone users for Android phones. Android's operating system is engineered not to allow apps to access information about other apps. But a team at Rutgers University found a way around that, by leveraging a function of Android’s API to send a signal whenever an app requests location information from the operating system. MIT Technology Review reported on the research today.

    The researchers’ hope is that this increased transparency will get users riled up enough to actually make the effort to go into individual apps and configure the privacy and location-tracking settings. It's an attempt to tip the privacy/convenience scale a little bit further toward the former, by lowering the burden on the user to check and see just how much information each application they've downloaded is scooping up regularly.

    There's some reason to believe this could work. A recent study done by economists at the University of Boulder found that smartphone owners would pay an average of $5 per app to make sure their personal information was under lock and key. And that survey was taken before Edward Snowden-leaked documents published in the Guardian revealed that "leaky apps" are blabbing your location, phone ID, gender, age, and other details to the NSA.  

    For all the attention bulk metadata collection has been getting lately, mobile apps are riddled with security vulnerabilities, and rest-assured government spooks are exploiting that. It's in app developers' best interests to gather as much personal data as possible, to sell ads and monetize their product. That leaves the onus of protection on the companies that control the app stores—giants like Google and Apple.

    The researchers at Rutgers are hoping their new app will put some heat on those tech companies to disclose more information about nefarious apps. It builds on the idea behind the iPhone app ProtectMyPrivacy, also developed as a line of defense between insecure, leaky apps and the mobile operating system. However, ProtectMyPrivacy requires jailbreaking Apple's iOS to use.

    The new Android app, which is due to drop in the Google Play store in two months and doesn't yet have a name, will be able to track the trackers just by downloading to your phone. Researchers said that in early tests, users were shocked to learn how many companies were tracking their location, and gathering up personal data without permission. Now that there's a possibility those apps are also, unknowingly, sharing that information with the federal governmnet, it's probably a good idea to know what's being revealed.


    Side image via Rutgers