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News

Privacy study reveals extent of access to private data on smartphones

BitDefender UK : 30 January, 2014  (Technical Article)
A study undertaken by Bitdefender shows the extent to which smartphone apps track user location and access personal information
Privacy study reveals extent of access to private data on smartphones

Bitdefender has found that an alarming proportion of Android applications can find and open private photographs on smartphones, track users’ locations, divulge e-mail addresses over the internet and leak address books and phone logs, according to an analysis of 836,021 Play Store Android applications.

Over 35% of the apps analysed by Bitdefender can track a user’s location, with almost 3% being able to access the location even when the app is running in the background without the user’s knowledge. More than 6% of these apps can also send the device location over the internet.

The data also revealed that up to 3% of the apps analysed can divulge e-mail addresses over the internet: 1,749 uploaded the address over an encrypted connection, with a further 1,661 doing so over an unencrypted connection that could easily be intercepted.

The findings raise further concerns in light of revelations by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden that the NSA and GCHQ planned to extract data from users’ smartphones via apps such as the popular Angry Birds game.

“Our latest study shows that most smartphone or tablet owners have at least one app – and probably several – that could be used to siphon sensitive information from their phones,” states Catalin Cosoi, Chief Security Strategist at Bitdefender. “A significant proportion of applications were shown to be capable of divulging details over the internet using an unencrypted connection. With phones now bearing more resemblance to mini computers, it is particularly worrying when you consider the vast amount of highly personal data about one’s identity, schedule, friends, activities and work that each device can contain.”

Unauthorised permissions may provide access to a device’s location, address books, telephone logs and geographic data from photos uploaded to the mobile versions of social networking sites. Facebook and Twitter both clear photos of metadata before publication, but a third party could duplicate the info as it travels across the carrier’s mobile network and stores it for further processing. This can also happen when third-party ad providers take data from the phone to use for targeted advertisements. In this case, the ad network only serves as a vector.

Bitdefender’s analysis also revealed that over 5% of the apps analysed could locate and open photos on a phone, with almost 10% including permissions to read contact lists. Many have a legitimate need for this data but others are clearly intrusive.

Catalin Cosoi, Chief Security Strategist at Bitdefender, adds, “Permissions related to social networks and the device’s sensors such as the camera, microphone and GPS, are highly likely to collect and report inputs. We advise users to not install such applications unless they feel comfortable with this information landing in a third party’s hand.”

Handy mobile apps such as Clueful can display permissions required by each app and help with privacy decisions. Ultimately, though, a smartphone is not a good store of highly-sensitive data.

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