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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

Technology

Elizabeth Prann

Atlanta, GA

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Be Careful What You Download

January 8, 2011 - 8:41 AM | by: Elizabeth Prann

Researchers and graduate students are developing a cell phone program that detects when applications you download take personal information from your phone and share it with advertisers.

“If you look at an application when you’re installing it, it says it has access to your location or it can access your phone identity,” said Will Enck, a researcher and Penn State University graduate student. “If it can also access the Internet, there’s the potential for that information to be used and shared out to servers on the Internet.”

The prototype application is called TaintDroid.  It notifies a user when his or her personal information gets shared.  Typically, the problems occur in popular and free apps like wallpapers and games.

“We looked at the top 50 free applications in every category in the Droid market and that gave us 1,100 applications.  From that we looked at the applications that had different privacy sensitive information  — and not just your location but your camera and microphone,” Enck said. “When you look at what a single person is doing over a period of time, if all that information is at one spot at a later time, someone can use that as a predictor as to what is going to happen next.”

And according to Rebecca Jeschke, a spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the information that leaves your phone is transmitted without your knowing,  and it could go to more than one advertiser.

“There are lots of reasons why advertisers would want personal information about you, where you’re traveling, what you’re buying and what things that you are interested in. Targeted advertising can be very powerful.  If your phone knows that you’re in a grocery store maybe that would be time to offer you a coupon,” said Jeschke.

And it isn’t just your cell phone. It’s also your home computer. Everything digital is vulnerable.

“When you use your cell or surf the web, you are creating a really detailed data trail of your interests, your likes and your dislikes.  This is all extremely valuable information for an advertiser.  Part of the problem is, this is a transaction that consumers aren’t often aware of,” Jeschke said. “They’re collecting your information, valuable information, and delivering you a service but maybe it’s a service you don’t want. Maybe you don’t want to give up that information.”

Both Jeschke and Enck suggest consumers stay proactive and educated on programs you download.

“The best way to protect yourself from that is when you’re installing an application to look at what that application can gain access to,” Enck said.  Taking the time to read the small print could mean one less unwanted pop-up or advertisement.