A study of iPhone and Android apps has revealed that many of these programs secretly collect and transmit users’ personal information.
The App Genome Project, launched by the mobile security company Lookout, analyzed every app available through Apple’s App Store and Google’s Android Market. Developers must disclose an app’s functionality when they submit an app to either store. Apple performs its own review before making an app downloadable.
Lookout researchers scanned more than 300,000 mobile applications and performed a deeper analysis of about a third of them. The project revealed that many developers do not disclose an app’s data-harvesting behavior in their descriptions. But this may not be deliberate–developers often include third-party software components in their apps without vetting that component’s behavior, the researchers say.
A significant number of the applications studied were found to do something that the developer hadn’t disclosed. For example, a third of all free iPhone apps attempted to access the user’s geographic location. For the Android platform, about 29 percent of free apps tried to access location data. At least 8 percent of all free Android apps and 14 percent of all free iPhone apps tried to access a user’s list of contacts as well. Both the iPhone OS and Android issue warnings to users when an application wants to access sensitive information. But the warning doesn’t tell the phone’s owner what data the app wants to collect, or where it might send it.
The researchers found that one Android app that lets users change the background on their phone also sends the device’s phone number and other user-specific information to a server in China.
“Mobile apps are doing a lot of things that people would not expect,” says Lookout CEO John Hering. He adds that third-party software components often collect information without warning developers. “End users and developers have very little idea what is happening in the applications they are using and writing.”