Remember when the FBI wanted Apple to make the encrypted data of a dead terrorist’s iPhone available to it? Apple said no. Apple said it wouldn’t change its software to meet investigators’ needs because that would make all of its phones vulnerable to unauthorized backdoor access. CEO Tim Cook described what the FBI wanted as the “software equivalent of cancer.” It was Apple’s shining moment. And it gave me hope that ordinary citizens could win the war on privacy.
Apple has continued to defend a person’s right to their privacy and, by implication, their personal data. “What happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone,” it said in a recent ad.
Sounds nice. What a shame it’s not true.
Apple says it does “a great deal to help users keep their data private. Apple hardware and software are designed to provide advanced security and privacy at every level of the system.”
But an experiment by Geoffrey Fowler – The Washington Post’s technology columnist – showed how iPhone users are passing on information and personal data to entities they’ve never heard of… at all times of the day.
All Night Long
Your apps are passing on information to third-party trackers when you’re awake and when you’re asleep. Fowler discovered that, in the dead of night, Microsoft OneDrive, Intuit’s Mint, Nike, Spotify, The Washington Post, IBM’s Weather Channel and Yelp all snooped on him.
It’s absolutely crazy. Citizen, the crime-alert app, published a statement that it wouldn’t share “your name or other personally identifying information.” Yet when Fowler ran his test, he found it repeatedly sent his phone number, email and exact GPS coordinates to a third-party tracker.
Night after night Fowler ran his experiment. At the end of one week, he counted 5,400 hidden app trackers guzzling data from his iPhone. At that rate, those hidden trackers collect 1.5 gigabytes per month.
App trackers are like the cookies on websites that cause unwanted ads to follow you around the internet. Except in apps, there’s little notice that trackers are lurking, and you can’t choose a different browser to block them. Trackers are also a problem on Android phones.
So what can you do to protect your privacy and assert control of your own personal data?
One way you can fight back is by using a private browser. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post urging First Stage Investor members to use Brave, a browser that automatically blocks trackers and ads that learn about users without their knowledge.
Fowler used privacy firm Disconnect to surface the hidden trackers on his phone. Patrick Jackson, the chief technology officer of Disconnect, developed an app called Privacy Pro SmartVPN that also identifies and blocks trackers. Free and paid versions are available here in the Apple app store. Disconnect also has free and paid versions you can get here.
(Google won’t even let Disconnect’s tracker-protection software into its Play store. Its rules prohibit apps that might interfere with another app displaying ads.)
Apple offers a privacy setting called “Limit Ad Tracking” that makes it a bit harder for companies to track iPhone users across apps. But its default setting is turned to “off.” So you’ll have to go into your settings to activate it.
Beyond these few things, there’s not a lot you can do.
And, unfortunately, privacy threats are nothing new. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration tried to force the installation of spy chips in everyone’s phones. The plan failed, more due to technical reasons than ethical ones. The Obama White House assembled a task force to consider options for spying on encrypted conversations. Fortunately, the group rejected mandating software changes.
And, last year, the British counterpart to the U.S. National Security Agency proposed to modify services such as WhatsApp so that spies could be secretly added to people’s conversations. Its proposal was, fortunately, rejected.
It’s now clear that our privacy is as much under attack from private sector entities as it is from the government. And our increasing app usage has opened the door to widespread abuse from thousands of data trackers.
Privacy concerns have created demand for blockchain solutions. And this technology has already demonstrated its effectiveness in many areas. But our phones are a special case. Our data should not be allowed to leave our phones without our permission.
I suspect that technology will be developed to fix this. And it can’t happen fast enough.
Co-Founder, First Stage Investor