Do you know what info those free apps collect?

May 2, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
It's so easy to download apps onto your smartphone since they let you do everything from playing games to lighting up a dark hallway. However, you may not know what lurks beneath those playful apps. 7 On Your Side takes a look at how they could be snooping into your business.

The apps we use every day are fun and helpful, but you may not realize they can also mine a lot of data about you and your friends. Companies you don't even know may be storing your information. Now there's an online tool that tells you what data your applications can collect. We let folks check their favorite apps and boy were they surprised.

"It can change my calendar?" said Tanya Simmons of Richmond. Simmons can't believe what one of her favorite smartphone apps can do. "It can display ads, it can read your address book! This is worse than my son."

Simmons said she never dreamed all of that personal data could be quietly collected by an app she uses simply to look up words in a dictionary.

"Yeah, back to paper," said Simmons.

What's more surprising? Apps everywhere are doing the same thing.

"Could track your location, can display ads, encrypts stored data?" said Kate.

Rory and Kate like this free app that turns his iPhone into a flashlight. However it's not as simple as it looks.

"Tracks usage, connects to Facebook, and that's going constantly in the background even though you don't know," said Rory.

"That's just for a flashlight? That's crazy," said Kate

7 On Your Side showed folks how those fun apps that often come free, can also collect a wealth of their personal information.

"These applications are a bit way too curious with this information," said Alex Cosoi, a CluefulApp.com spokesperson.

CluefulApp.com is a free web-based application that can tell you what data your apps can collect without you realizing it.

"That's why Clueful is there to make people wonder why would this application require all this information," said Cosoi.

Clueful is made by Bitdefender -- an Internet security company based in Romania. Here's how it works. You type in the name of a smartphone app. Clueful displays a list of the data your app is capable of mining. We went out with a tablet computer and let folks check out their own apps.

"Connects to Facebook, your usage, reads your address book," said Concord resident Jose Masinas.

Masinas didn't know his free word game could track his location and read his contact list.

"You think you're just innocently playing a game with somebody and it's just a game and yet, in the background they're collecting a lot of information," said Masinas.

"People have this idea that there is no cost for trying out a free app or they don't have to think about it," said Parker Higgins, a privacy advocate from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Higgins says both free and paid apps are collecting the data. It's legal as long as the apps disclose those practices, but Higgins says fewer users read privacy policies. Once a developer collects the information, it's nearly impossible to know how it's used.

"When they've got millions of addresses it makes them a tempting target for hackers," said Higgins.

Developers say they need to collect data for several reasons: they may access your Facebook page or address book to connect you with friends for games or they may change your calendar to remind you of a scheduled event, and largely, ad networks use the data to target advertising to you.

Industry spokesperson Morgan Reed says ads are necessary when apps are free, but it means giving up data.

"I'm giving you this free app, I'm going to show you some ads and to do so, I'm going to collect a little bit of information about you," said Reed.

"Just to learn how to spell something right?" said Simmons.

That brings us back to Simmons and her word app, Dictionary.com.

The company tells us Dictionary.com never collects, stores or sells your data. The apps does allow advertisers to access your contact list or calendar, but only if you give your permission to do so.

Masinas' "Words With Friends Game" is made by Zynga which tells us it already discloses its collection practices in its privacy policy and says, "Our hope is that individuals will review the information and make informed choices about whether to use our apps or certain features within them such as inviting friends to play from one's address book."

Makers of the flashlight app, iHandySoft, did not return our calls and emails for comment.

Clueful was previously sold in the iTunes store. Apple said it removed Clueful last July because it didn't like the way it was marketed. Now Clueful is back as a free online app.


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