We’re all aware that we use our smartphones a lot, but the numbers behind that observation never fail to impress. According to one industry analysis published last year, the average smartphone user has 30 apps on their device and uses 9 on a daily basis. Another study found those users are on their apps an average of 2 hours, 30 minutes a day. 

A University of Oxford academic paper out yesterday had some disturbing findings about what can happen to all the data you create when you use those apps. Researchers looked at 959,000 apps on the US and UK Google Play stores and found:

  • 90.4% of apps host computer code for at least one third-party tracking company. 
  • The median app had 10 third-party trackers.
  • 17.9% had code for more than 20 third-party trackers.
  • (Third party tracking allows companies other than the app developer to access data from app’s usage. What data is sent along depends on everything from your privacy settings to corporate policy at the app developer or Google.)
  • News apps, games and apps targeting children had some of the highest numbers of links to third party tracking companies. 

So which companies can access all or some of your app-created data? Well since we’re talking about Google’s App Store, no surprise that it has the highest penetration at +88% of all apps. Facebook came in second at 43%. The next 4 were: Twitter (34%), Verizon (26%), Microsoft (23%), and Amazon (18%). Naturally, Google claims there’s nothing bad going on (link at the end of this section). 

Since we know regulators are keen readers of this sort of academic work, the paper’s conclusions on that front are worth a mention:

  • They recommend full audits of mobile app stores to assure data privacy compliance. Just looking at Facebook’s app, for example, may not give a full picture of all the information that company can glean once you include third-party data gathering. 
  • Tracking software is transnational (100,000 apps in the study sent data to more than one jurisdiction) so regulating third party data usage requires international cooperation. 
  • The global smartphone ecosystem is complex, with users, manufacturers, cell service providers, app developers and third party tracking companies all in the mix. Effective regulation will need all these parties’ cooperation and compliance. 

Bottom line: this story didn’t get a lot of press today, but it is a good case study in how difficult a challenge it will be to regulate technology like smartphone data gathering. 

Link to the study:

And to an article about it:

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Smartphone use