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Should you worry about your online and mobile privacy?

Malware and spyware are not the only big privacy concerns today. Even search engines, social networks and carriers might be storing and selling our data. How concerned should you be with your mobile privacy?
April 19, 2013
Hey, no peeking! (Image credit: Peeking / Shutterstock)
Hey, no peeking! (Image credit: Peeking / Shutterstock)

Throughout the last decade, there have been numerous debates regarding the security measures that can be put in place to protect our online identities. But given that our newly found mobile lifestyles can now provide a lot more data to those interested in capturing them, I believe privacy to be one of the bigger technological and ideological concerns of the 21st century.

Given the technology landscape today, I believe we are confronted with four major categories of privacy issues: viruses (spyware to be more exact), Google privacy concerns, Facebook privacy concerns and carrier privacy issues. Throughout this extensive article, I will try to show that while each one of these issues affects a different demographic, together, they have a huge potential to create privacy problems at a global level.

Legal Spyware

When talking about computer viruses, there are few modern examples of malware that is designed to hurt your OS or hardware just for the sake of being evil. Viruses no longer carry payloads that destroy software and hardware, though. Instead, viruses are actually out to turn a profit, with spyware stealing your data.

Spyware is a small piece of code that, once installed on your machine, can send back all the information about how you use the respective machine. And I say machine, because spyware is not just a problem on desktop systems anymore, but also a growing concern on smartphones as well, especially on the Android platform.

The logical explanation is that all of the spyware out there is designed especially to serve data gathering purposes, either with the intention to sell or process it later. However, this kind of information is considered to come from the black market, as designing any type of malware is rightfully considered a crime.

There’s a market for that, sure, as there are markets for iOS and private Android malware, where one can buy exploit information from the hacker who has found them. But what strikes me as an added problem is the fact that there are several apps you can install on your smartphone that actually gathering real-time information about them such as location, SMS data, call details and browsing history.

So spyware is definitely a problem, but given that this type of malware affects fewer people (in theory, real numbers will always be impossible to estimate), it is not the biggest problem. It’s not at all that difficult to install anti-malware or secure our Wi-Fi networks, but ensuring mobile privacy goes beyond defending against overtly malicious applications. Our biggest potential leak actually comes from legitimate companies that know us best.

Google Privacy Concerns

I probably don’t have to tell you this, but Google holds a great deal of information about the world’s population. Google dominates the search engine market, has a tight grip on the smartphone market with Android, owns YouTube and Google News — two of the biggest content delivery channels out there — not to mention that Google+ is now a growing player as a social network.

So what’s Google doing with all this data? Well, it does two things: first they use it to create better products (that’s their pitch line for it), and then they sell it to online marketers through their ad channels: Adsense, Adwords, Adplatform, ad everything.

Arguably, Google does not tell marketers exactly who you are, neither does it make this information available for purchase and processing. It’s all integrated into their product, one that sells ads better like no other platform out there, especially thanks to all this information that Google provides. At least, that’s what we are led to believe.

As you would expect, Google is often under a lot of criticism regarding its privacy concerns. To name just a few:

  • The Google Street View team was fined for secretly capturing information over unsecured Wi-Fi connections.
  • Google Reader was apparently closed because of the numerous privacy lawsuits it was getting ready to dive in.
  • Google Play is raising privacy concerns in Australia over the fact that app developers can receive the full names, email addresses and zip codes of their every single paying customer.
  • Google spent $22 million to settle a privacy lawsuit concerning the fact that the company was secretly gathering information from its users by bypassing the security settings on the Apple Safari browser.
  • Google Analytics is another one of Google’s services that has raised privacy concerns, this time due to Google’s usage of cookies.
  • Google Glass (our most recent Friday Debate topic) is already stirring the privacy issues ocean. Personally, I expect a tsunami once it becomes commercially available, mainly because Google’s databases will now literally own detailed information about one’s life, and it won’t help that Glass can start incessantly recording everything that you see in your everyday life.

Also regarding Google’s database, it should be mentioned that on March 1st 2012, all the user data was linked across all of Google’s services. Google was fined in multiple countries for these changes, and there are early sign that the lawsuits will not stop here.

But how safe is all this data? Given the recent increase in the frequency of important hack attacks, one has to come to this question: what happens if all this data falls into the wrong hands? But more on that a bit later.

Can I get a little privacy, please? (Image credit: Shutterstock
Can I get a little privacy, please? (Image credit: Message privacy / Shutterstock)

Facebook Privacy Concerns

The world’s second largest intimate whisper buddy is Facebook, the social networking site that has often  been criticized for the way it handles the personal information of users. As with Google, Facebook is selling this information via targeted ad sales.

Here’s a list of the most recent privacy-related issues that Facebook has been confronted with:

  • Back in May 2012, Facebook bought the social discovery app Glancee, containing code that notified users when Facebook friends are near. This was not a popular decision amongst privacy groups.
  • In late 2012, Facebook has removed its voting system, a feature that allowed its users to directly influence any policy changes. A vote was used to determine if there are enough Facebook subscribers that want to maintain this influence, but only 700,000 of the over 1 billion Facebook users have expressed their opinion on the matter.
  • A Facebook mobile update that launched in late 2012 asked users to opt in to the Photo Sync feature, one that once enabled automatically uploads photos taken with your smartphone to Facebook’s servers for ulterior review. A similar feature is available on Google Plus and Google Drive. Both raise major privacy issues.
  • Facebook Partner categories, a new Facebook division that specializes on delivering ads based on the purchase behavior of its users, was met with intense criticism due to the fact that personal data is shared with third parties. Company officials were quick to dismiss such claims, suggesting that the new ads improve on the overall Facebook experience.
  • Facebook Graph Search, a feature released in February 2013, was perceived by many as a direct threat to all that personal data that Facebook stores.
  • The recently launched Facebook Home is widely regarded amongst Facebook critics as a data gathering app and nothing more. Facebook’s means of collecting even more data from its users.

Despite all these problems, however, one study claims that Facebook users are sharing more and more personal data with the social network. You might be wondering which is the most important data set in this complex package?

Location & Carriers

Given that you’re almost always next to your smartphone/tablet, the GPS system contains valuable, real-time information about where you are. Google obviously collects this data with their Google Now feature in Android, while Facebook knows all those places you have checked into, as well as any posts with geolocation data embedded.

Besides software companies, there is another group of companies that collect your data: carriers. These companies know how you are using your mobile device’s internet connection, and always know where you are by calculating the distance to the nearest cell towers, and even using triangulation to improve accuracy. But the problem isn’t that carriers know stuff about you. From my point of view, the biggest problem we have today is that these carriers are selling this data to anyone that’s interested.

Both Verizon and AT&T, the two biggest carriers in the US, have divisions that occupy specifically in selling data about their users, their data usage and their location. Granted, the carriers claim that they are using very secure systems of passing on this data — ones that will make it impossible to identify one user or another by whoever is buying this data. This data is stripped of any information that could identify you as you, or that’s what carriers want us to know.

It turns out that backtracking all this data to a single, identifiable person is not only possible, but not the world’s toughest computer science problem. In fact, a group of scientists from MIT have managed to identify 95% of the users represented in an European carrier’s data set, all by matching just four data entries with the data set for each of these persons. A couple of Foursquare check-ins, a geolocated tweet, and an item on a credit card slip are all that’s needed to bring up a detailed map with all the locations you’ve been, as well as how you are using your mobile device.

The sad part is that you can not opt to stop sending anonymous data to these carriers. If you want to keep using your mobile device(s), you’re going to have to accept the fact that Big Brother is watching you. Sadly, this Big Brother is not controlled by the government or any security-centric agency, but by anyone with enough money to buy all this data that carriers are selling about their users.

According to The Verge, a US-based data-gathering company has managed to get information about more than half of the carriers users in the US. That’s a lot of people. The worst part is that this company can do anything they want with this data: use it to build Big Brother or sell it (with a profit) to any other company.

Opting Out = Quitting

There is no way to keep using your carrier, Google and Facebook the way you do — or even at all — and stop sending all this data about yourself. And so the only way to really opt out is to stop using all these services, if you believe that your privacy is not respected.

But here is where we come to another major problem, meaning that we do not know specifically how this data is processed and captured by the carriers, Facebook  or Google. Chances are that we will never do — meaning that there’s no way of knowing for sure if certain third parties are allowed backdoor full access to all this data without our knowledge.

Whether we’re talking about government or international agencies, evil masterminds, or just sick bastards that want to get intimate with our virtual identities, do you feel comfortable knowing that the only privacy guarantee is that you “shouldn’t worry about it?”

There is a saying that if the product or service is free, then in all likelihood, you are the product. Sad to say, there are some services that we actually pay for that are also using our personal data for their gain.

An Optimistic Perspective

There are a couple of sides to each coin, so let’s take the time to analyze a few potential advantages of the fact that all our preferences and user patterns are recorded and processed.

For starters, the way platforms and products interpret our patterns can lead to amazing achievements. I, for one, think that we’re heading into an era where software platforms will help us gain more mobility towards achieving the tasks we want to achieve.

Google Now is one concept example with a lot of potential, one that would be impossible without all the data Android users are feeding it. In return for all this data, Google Now provides you with information before you actually look for it. Sure, there’s a lot of tweaking to be done, but personally I’m in love with the idea of having our lifestyles analyzed in the purpose of feeding us information without us having to ask for it.

Should we worry?

From my perspective, yes. As free individuals, we should worry more about our privacy. Only once we start asking enough questions, more accurate answers will have to be provided. We have to let these companies know that this is a subject that matters to us, one that we will not give up any terrain on.

Unfortunately, the only way to achieve this is going through the legal system — one that often seems to be dominated by the richest, in terms of money and influence. Can we get enough noise and influence for those in power to listen to us?

Will the problem with privacy gain too much momentum before we can address it? What needs to be done in order to spark a change in how the big companies handle — or profit from — our data? Should we simply become digital hermits if only to prevent Google, Facebook, carriers or any other company from profiting from our personal information?