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There’s No Such Thing as a Free App

by on December 6, 2012

What is it about the notion of “free” that causes a typically rational person to let down their guard so easily?? It feels relative to our “lottery gene,” that idea that we are  the individual exception to the rule,  the 1 winner among 5 million players. Subconsciously, we know or suspect that “free” means a compromise is going to be  involved and we have numerous plug-and-play adages and proverbs to remind us, yet… “Wait – did you just say ‘free?’”

Just in time to keep us focused during the season of electronic joy and twinkling hi-def distraction, two recent studies by The Wall Street Journal1 and Juniper Networks reveal that while you may be amusing yourself with Angry Birds, other nefarious activities may be taking place beneath your screen’s surface. Personal details such as current location, your phone numbers, your name/ID, age, gender, income, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and political views may be sent to tracking companies without your consent. More alarming, many apps request permission to perform such unnecessary functions as sending texts, taking pictures (activating your device’s camera), stealing pictures, accessing text-message archives, or making phone calls.

Though many apps list and require the user to sign-off on certain permissions before installing — the explicit detail and the access being allowed is often collapsed within drop-down menus, while the “Accept & Download” button is dominantly placed. While many companies say that they do not share their data (which is to say your data) with outside sources, a lack of standardized practice necessitates a call for discretion, as the way in which permissions are displayed does not differentiate between a company legitimately using your private information for the app’s straightforward intention, from spyware placing an outgoing call to eavesdrop on conversations within earshot of your device. Unfortunately, there is also little that can be done to sidestep this tracking. Rarely is there an “opt out” function, but rather, a flat ultimatum to agree and install or decline and leave empty handed. Here are a few ways to you can help filter the good from the bad:

–          Free apps were more than 4 times as likely to access contact lists (or perform other invasive functions) than paid apps.

–          Many apps collect location data in interest of assigning localized ads – but again, read the permissions and if anything sounds shady orvague, opt out.

–          Many apps are no more than a ruse to collect your data, the most popularly downloaded apps (racing games, gambling/card games, word games) thus yield a higher frequency of posers .

–          Be especially cautious of financial related apps, many request permission to make outgoing calls in the background , but provide no explanation for why.

–          keep an eye out for apps that don’t have button/logo art, that do not look professional, have spelling errors, are knock-offs, or do not list a company .

–          Read the apps reviews – especially the negative ones – why are they disapproving?

–          Perform a web search for the app or the company, they should also list the permissions on their website – perhaps with greater detail – if they do not list a referral site, beware.

–          Delete/Remove and report apps (via the app store they were downloaded) that may come factory on your phone and you do not use, or that you feel compromise your data.

To some extent, this level of intrusion is our new normal and is not limited to smart phones. Tablet or eReader users operating  iPads/iTunes, Kindles/Amazon, or Nooks/Barnes & Noble will recall that in order to even have the ability to download an app, free or pay, they must enter an active credit card number.

Upon “purchase” of a free app iTunes lets you scramble the number; and you can delete the card from Amazon, but Nook requires you to keep an active card – and even runs a .01 transaction that is immediately refunded to verify each “purchase, while all let you keep a card and password protect purchases. And when you consider that Apple and Google are the main companies administering the “rules” for app online-tracking – and that they run the biggest services, by revenue, for putting ads on cell phones – the outlook can feel daunting.

Before you enjoy your free lunch, always read the fine print.


1. Yukari Iwatani Kane and Scott Thurm, “Your Apps Are Watching You,” The Wall Street Journal, accessed November 8, 2012, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704694004576020083703574602.html

For further reading:
John Leydon, “Free Android Apps Often Secretly Make Calls, Use the Camera,” The Register, accessed November 8, 2012, http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/11/01/android_app_privacy_audit/