Mobile tracking: How personal data is shared between apps

Mobile tracking happens more often than we think. Here are some ways you can take control of your privacy.

Mobile devices are tracking us much more than we realize. Smartphones, while handy, are the perfect tool for data brokers and advertisers. App developers, advertisers, and companies can use them to collect information, build profiles, and provide personalized ads to users.

It’s important to know how this is happening. Tracking is typically conducted via SDKs, or “software development kits”. Every app on your phone has an SDK, and it is essentially the engine that runs all of the app’s logic. For instance, if you turn on your location for the weather app to get a localized forecast, it might be sending location information back to another app.

How tracking occurs

SDKs on their own aren’t trackers. However, they serve as the means by which tracking via mobile apps happens. To put it simply, SDKs are essentially a tool package that helps apps function in a particular way. Companies provide these to developers in return for the data they can gather from them.

The problem lies with the interconnected “web” of apps that all communicate with each other. We have countless third-party libraries and APIs that become part of an ecosystem, whether it is for advertising or analytics purposes, or to login using social media platforms. The resulting data flows are very diverse and complex, and to this point it has essentially been unmanaged by manufacturers. Advertisers then sneak outgoing data flows into SDKs that may gather and send back information to third party apps which may not be required for that app’s functionality.

This is how mobile tracking occurs. The information sent to third party apps by the applications on your device can be utilized to create your profile. It’s likely that you are not even aware of what information is leaving the device, where it is going, or how it will be utilized to track you.

Why it matters

The whole situation leaves you susceptible to data breaches. A recent example is the ParkMobile hack, the company responsible for managing parking in Savannah, Tybee Island, and throughout Atlanta, where the data of around 20 million users was exposed. The cybersecurity event occurred due to a third-party software vulnerability. The information accessed during the incident included email addresses, license plate numbers, phone numbers, and vehicle nicknames.

Breaches of apps like this, where agreeing to a consent form after downloading the application gives the publishers, third-party software, etc. access to a lot of personal information, leaving you in a vulnerable position even after you have uninstalled the app. Even without a breach, individualized profiles leave us susceptible to highly personalized ads and even scam attempts.

How to prevent apps from tracking you

Research the app. Know what you’re downloading. Before downloading an app, make sure to read the privacy policy and terms and conditions. Know what you are signing up for. You need to be aware of what information you are allowing the app to access on your device.

Manage permissions regularly. Most applications and mobile devices allow users to disable tracking in the settings.

Keep the software up to date and remove apps you don’t use. Hackers thrive on security vulnerabilities. Updating software constantly will help patch any security holes or flaws that might have been present in the older version.

Although manufacturers like Apple are taking steps to enhance privacy, mobile tracking remains prevalent today. The steps listed above can help enhance your privacy.

Austin Proctor is a Swainsboro native and owner of Jato Wealth Advisory, LLC. He graduated from Swainsboro High School and obtained his bachelor’s degree from Georgia Institute of Technology. In his free time, he enjoys fishing, hiking, tennis, and grilling. He and his fiancé, Meryl, love trying new restaurants, cooking fun recipes, and spending time with family and friends.

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