Oops… smartphone apps are spying after all!

looking at phone
Michael Björn

Head of Research Agenda and Quality at Consumer & IndustryLab

I recently published a blog post about spying apps and advertising. And to my great surprise, the reaction was the same as when we initially published the Spying Apps trend in our recent consumer trends report; people contacted me and totally agreed with me. Except for one thing, they agreed with me on the opposite of what I had in fact said.

I wrote that apps aren't actually spying, and it is just we consumers who get that impression since we do not consider the behind-the-scenes workings of those apps. But people got in touch and said that they agreed and that they also experienced apps spying on them. In essence, they had misunderstood what I was trying to say.

The thing is I was wrong, and they were right.

And – third time lucky, or unlucky as it may be in this case – now I get to write that apps do spy on us. The other day, I was greeted by a mail urging me to disable Facetime on all my Apple devices as a bug had been found that allows anyone to call someone up using Facetime and hear the people they are calling before they answer. It would even work if the receiver does not answer at all!

Obviously, this bug was totally unintentional, and Apple has disabled group calling servers for Facetime, as it seems that the group calling functionality that was recently added is the culprit.

Nevertheless, if an app can do stuff like that by mistake, maybe apps could be developed with more nefarious intentions. At least that's what many of you told me. Is that feasible? Let's dig a little deeper.

Are smartphone apps really spying us?

Here's the thing: Facetime, like any other piece of actively maintained software, is a moving target. Maybe you are quite familiar with an app and know exactly what it does. But then it gets an update, and you think you still know exactly what it does, while in reality it's started doing something else as well.

Often, it might just be an extension of functionality and probably doesn't matter to you as you just keep on using it, and trusting it, like before. Sometimes you may even like the added functionality.

But what if the ownership of the app changes hands, or the mission of the company providing the app subtly shifts without you being aware of it?

There could be new functionality behind that familiar interface or icon that you aren't aware of and don't want. In theory, this could potentially include new ways of collecting data about you, that you wouldn't approve of, if you were aware.

There are, after all, obvious reasons why such subtle changes could indeed happen. As we point out in our Spying Apps trend, as many as 52 percent of consumers think popular apps collect more smartphone data than needed in order to make profits.

It could also be a bug and nothing more, as in the Facetime case. But what if that bug that goes undiscovered by the app developer, and is exploited by someone else?

Disabling spying apps

Let's face it, given the number of apps you probably already have on your smartphone, this quickly turns into a quagmire that you simply can't stay afloat in. Every week, I'm sure there are at least one or two apps that get an update. How many of you honestly have the time and energy to stay up to date with all those changes all the time? I'm confident very few people thoroughly check out all new additions, and neither do I.

So, am I saying that you probably should just give up and let apps do whatever they want? Am I saying that you are most likely a law-abiding citizen and have nothing to hide hence nothing to fear?

No, I am most certainly not saying that – even though I do believe you are a law-abiding citizen. Instead, I am only just now realizing the full importance of another finding that we highlighted in the trend report: as many as 59 percent of the respondents in our study agreed that we need global personal data protection principles.

With principles like that, our apps can continue to be updated and change functionality, with less need for us as users to worry, because the scope of what the apps could do with that information would be addressed.

Indeed, as we say in the trend report, the question of individual integrity will continue to rise with the increasing digitalization of society. And apps that spy certainly increase the urgency of the issue.

Find out more insights from Ericsson ConsumerLab's 10 Hot Consumer Trends for 2019, and let us know what you think about apps and the overall digitalization of society.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Michael Björn
Michael Björn is Head of Research Agenda and Quality at Consumer & IndustryLab at Ericsson ConsumerLab and has a PhD in data modeling from the University of Tsukuba in Japan.
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