Stay safe from app tracking

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Thorin Klosowski went deeper into the new iPhone app disclosures that show what information they collect about us and for what purpose.

He appeared both confused and concerned about our digital economy, which relies on apps that obscure what happens with our personal information.

Thorin, editor of New York Times product review site Wirecutter, told me about his research on app tracking disclosures of 250 iPhone apps, why people should care about app tracking and tips for people to protect their information.

Why should people be bothered by collecting digital data? If a weather app knows all the times I’ve been to McDonald’s and in return I’m getting local weather forecasts, isn’t that fair trade?

For a lot of people, yes. But it is not a really informed profession.

Suppose you see in the description of the iPhone app store that a weather app is recording your location at all times and keeping track of all the apps for which you entered the same email address. You have no way of knowing what the app builder needs this data for or if this information is being sold or shared with other companies.

What could possibly go wrong?

Facial recognition startup Clearview AI is an example of what happens when information that we release to the world for one purpose is collected and used for another – in this case, putting together a database of photos. online from millions of people – that none of the participants actually consented to it.

We have little control over what happens to our personal information. Just trying to figure out what is happening to our data is exhausting. I have written about digital privacy for years and still find it extremely complicated.

The main thing is that these Apple App Privacy Disclosures, which are modeled on food nutrition labels, are they better than nothing but still not very useful?

That’s it. These labels lack context. You can’t easily compare apps, so it’s hard to know what normal activity for an app in any category, and what might be excessive.

And after spending a lot more time than expected digging into this, I’m not convinced that this app tracking info is useful. I’m glad that Apple privacy labels exist, but only as a first step for the public to understand how the whole economy of data collection is fundamentally broken.

Let’s find something positive! Have you looked at any apps that collect relatively little data?

The Signal messaging app is one of them, and a notes app called Bear. And almost every game that was part of Apple Arcade, the company’s $ 4.99 monthly video game subscription service, appeared to have minimal data collection.

What do you advise people who are concerned about the collection of their personal data?

Apps on your phone that you don’t use regularly expose you to unnecessary data collection. My top recommendations are to remove any apps you don’t use and don’t download an app at all if you only use it once or occasionally. Using the website version of a service instead of the app is often a better alternative as data collection tends to be less aggressive.

If you had absolute power, what would you change to better preserve our personal data?

I think I would get rid of personalized advertising based on what we’re doing, where we’re going, or what our interests are. Digital ads based on our personal information are the root of what is wrong with our online economy.

Read more: Android said it plans to follow Apple’s lead in requiring disclosure of data collection in its App Store. Android data tracking labels will begin next year.


Tip of the week

Personalized ads aren’t just limited to apps, they can track you across websites as well. Here is Brian X. Chen, Consumer tech columnist for The Times, on ways to prevent digital businesses from collecting our personal information:

Targeted ads are scary. If you were window shopping in real life and looking at an expensive pair of shoes, would you want a flyer to keep the shoes stuck to your car all the time? This is essentially how personalized online advertising behaves. I call them stalker ads.

A few years ago, I wrote a column about combating stalker ads with brute force. Most of this advice is still relevant today. The bottom line is that you need several techniques to block ads on the web and in mobile apps. Here are some steps:

  • Install an ad blocker. For your web browser, you can install add-ons that block ads. My favorite for computer browsers is uBlock Origin, and on iPhones I recommend 1Blocker.

    For Android users, Google has banned many ad blockers from its official Play app store. The easiest way to block ads is to use a private web browser, as I will detail next.

  • On mobile devices, use a private browser. Firefox Focus, DuckDuckGo, and Brave are privacy-focused mobile browsers that include built-in ad and tracker blocking. These come in handy when you want to do a discreet web search. I wrote more about these web browsers here.

  • Install a tracking blocker. These detect computer code on websites that spy on people and prevent trackers from loading. My favorite tracking blocker for desktop systems is Disconnect.me, and for mobile devices I like Barracuda CloudGen Access (free on iOS and Android). Here’s more information on Apple’s new settings that allow iPhone owners to tell apps not to track them.


  • A frightening computer attack on a fuel pipeline: Cybercriminals have forced the temporary shutdown of a pipeline that carries nearly half of the East Coast’s gasoline and jet fuel supply. My colleagues considered what this might do for fuel prices and whether this critical infrastructure would be better protected as part of a proposed White House proposal to impose digital security standards on federal agencies and contractors.

    From last month: Nicole Perlroth explained why infrastructure like pipelines are so vulnerable to ransomware, the type of cyberattack that affected this fuel pipeline.

  • Campus conflict over supervision of virtual exams: Some Dartmouth medical students accused of cheating on online exams said administrators relied on flawed data from course assignment software that tracks student activity on exams remotely without their knowledge. My colleagues Natasha Singer and Aaron Krolik examined the tensions on the Dartmouth campus and asked: Can the technology used to catch cheaters be accurate, fair and transparent?

  • Returning to classrooms is not that simple: Some kids and parents aren’t eager to go back to school in person because they’ve rearranged their lives over the past year in ways they don’t want to cancel, my colleague Dana Goldstein reported. It is a nuanced analysis of what experts call “reluctance to school” and what authorities are doing to convince families to return.

We should love wasps! They control pests, pollinate plants, and perform other important tasks to help ecosystems, human health, and the economy. Also, “they can strip a bird of its meat in a matter of hours,” a behavioral environmentalist told CNN.




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