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Many free apps come at a price

| Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, 10:58 a.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Carnegie Mellon University's Jialiu Lin, a graduate student, and Professors Jason Hong and Norman Sadeh, are part of a research team that found that 56 of the 100 most popular free phone apps are collecting items such as your contact list, location and phone ID. So, while you’re playing Angry Birds, for instance, those birds are picking up information about you that the developers can sell to marketers. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review

Some popular “free” smartphone applications come with a surprising price: They tell marketers the users' locations and can legally snatch their contact lists and even their photographs, a pair of Carnegie Mellon University researchers found.

Even the wildly popular Angry Birds app is in on the action.

Jason Hong, an associate professor in CMU's Human-Computer Interaction Institute, and Norman Sadeh, a computer science professor, studied the 100 most popular, free Android phone apps and found that more than half gather information about users. Often, it's sold to companies looking for targets for mobile advertising.

“For us, this wasn't a surprise. We've known about this type of behavior for a long time. The novel thing was: What do laypeople know?” Hong said.

They said many people don't read lengthy disclosure agreements when they download apps, so they don't realize they're giving companies permission to access a variety of information stored on mobile devices.

App developers can sell the information to online advertisers, companies that help advertisers target their ads, consumer analytics companies and others, or they can use it themselves to target ads.

For their study, Hong and Sadeh and their collaborators surveyed reactions from more than 5,000 app users about what apps collect.

They discovered users often were surprised to find popular apps gathered information from them, including their locations, the unique identification numbers of their devices, their contact lists and in some cases their photographs.

“What our work uncovered is that users have very little understanding of what information is being collected by these folks,” Sadeh said.

Hong said users weren't surprised that some apps collected information but were stunned to learn of the items others collect.

“To give you a good example, for Angry Birds, over 90 percent of users are surprised that it is getting their location data. But for Google Maps, most people know they are getting location data,” he said.

Likewise, he said, users were unaware that Brightest Flashlight — a free app that turns a smartphone into a flashlight — collects the location of users fumbling in the dark.

“I do a lot of speaking, and during my talks, I can actually see people deleting apps,” Hong said.

“But the companies aren't being evil. They're just trying to generate revenue,” he added.

Application designers Rovio (Angry Birds), Zynga (Farmville) and Pandora (Internet radio) did not reply to requests for comment.

Rebecca Jeschke, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontiers Foundation agreed that most developers are merely trying to turn a buck.

“But ‘gotcha' isn't a good model where privacy is concerned. ... Perhaps a free game or app is worth giving up some of your data. But if that's true, then it should be pretty transparent,” she said.

A Pew Research Center survey of 2,254 app users last fall found 54 percent decided not to install an app because of privacy concerns, while 30 percent reported they deleted an app for the same reason.

Just this month, California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris released a report recommending app developers take steps to be more clear about the information their apps collect.

Sadeh said the researchers' findings make a case for clearer, concise disclosures on issues users find most important, rather than lengthy statements that pop up after a user has clicked to download an app.

As technology advances, the reach of apps will extend beyond smart phones.

“TVs will run apps. Cars will have apps. We're going to see all of these problems again,” Hong said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com. Staff writer Mike Wereschagin contributed to this report.

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