Ad nets secretly collecting private data

2012-07-09 22:22

New York  - Some advertising networks have been secretly collecting app users personal details over the past year and now have access to millions of smartphones globally, US-based mobile security firm LookOut said.

These unregulated practices are on the rise, LookOut said on Monday as it unveiled the first industry guidelines on how app developers and advertisers could avoid raising consumer angst.

Some of the most advanced mobile viruses can even create charges to consumers phone bill or crash the devices.

"Aggressive ad networks are much more prevalent than malicious applications. It is the most prevalent mobile privacy issue that exists," Kevin Mahaffey, LookOut's technology chief and co-founder, told Reuters in an interview.

Over 80 million apps have been downloaded which carry a form of invasive ads - used by 5% of all free apps on Google's Android platform - which can take data from phones or install software without users' knowledge.

Some more aggressive networks collect users e-mail addresses or phone numbers without permission, while others install icons to home screens, track users whereabouts or push ads to notification bar.

Mobile devices have so far had limited appeal for writers of viruses or other malware due to numerous small platforms and limited financial gains but, during the first quarter, the amount of malware on the popular Android platform jumped to 7 000 from 600, according to Intel's security software arm McAfee.

LookOut declined to name the most aggressive ad networks, hoping some of them would align practices to match the new guidelines which include publishing details on their privacy policy and allowing consumers to avoid data collection.

Jules Polonetsky, co-chair of Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington-based think tank focusing on responsible data handling practices, said consumers need to be aware of the risks.

Angry Birds

"Many apps are ad-supported, there is nothing wrong with it, but users should know what is their trade-off," said Polonetsky.

Advertising networks work as intermediaries, linking large numbers of advertisers with media publishers.

They have seen a boost especially from a rise of Google's Android platform, where many of the applications, like Angry Birds, are distributed free and funded through changing advertisements.

Ad companies are closely watching the sector as mobile advertising presents an opportunity for new revenue streams. Advertisers are attracted to the sheer size of the audience.

"If you look at the 6 billion eyeballs - there is a potential for a goldrush," said David Gosen, a director at market research firm Nielsen.

But with consumers increasingly conscious of privacy issues, some said aggressive practices could backfire on the $8bn industry.

"We are in a very early days of mobile advertising and models are very much derived from the web where practices have not been very respectful," said Anne Bezancon, founder and president of Placecast, which provides location-based marketing services but never shares or sells information of its 10 million clients.

"The mobile experience is much more intimate and personal - a phone is an extension of you, not a distant publishing screen. The equivalent is someone whispering in your ear."

  • Noedig Greene - 2012-07-10 04:49

    think about it why would sum1 develop an app put there 4 u 2 download 4 free, not in this planet

  • DuToitCoetzee - 2012-07-10 07:30

    Anyone having a Nokia 3110 for sale? It seams to me it can be one of the few phones that I will be "safe" with.

      Tony Lapson - 2012-07-10 09:54

      That comment has me in a "stitch"... I hope these claims aren't "fabric"-ated... Ok, I have reached the "apex" of this "thread". It "seams" like I have lost my mind.

  • badballie - 2012-07-10 08:13

    It would be naive of anyone to believe in the inherent goodness of his fellow man under any circumstances, statistically 8 of 10 of you friends will not hesitate to steal from you, 1 would steal from you if they thought they could get away with it and 1 will never steal from you under any circumstances. The South African intelligence services listen into to your phone calls without a warrant and at will, the US has also been found to do this and England has also been found guilty of abusing power in this respect. Understand that every single electronic signal is intercepted and recorded, that software is used to pinpoint flagged words or phrases and that these flagged communications are evaluated by humans. The belief that government and security forces are honest or that your communications are not actively recorded, stored and used at will is the single biggest failing of the common man.

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