If you think you know about trackers on your smartphone – think wrong! The corona pandemic has shown once again how much we are spied on via the apps on our cell phones. An inventory.
“Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”
This statement dates from 1986 and is also known as the first Kranzberg law. It came from the American technology historian Melvin Kranzberger – and it still applies surprisingly well to hidden trackers in our smartphones.
Because they seem to be neither good nor bad – but also not neutral. Instead, as new super cookies, trackers access an incredible amount of user data.
Sometimes life can be saved, such as with Corona. Sometimes clear boundaries are crossed. But users can hardly ever really understand what trackers are doing on their smartphones.
Trackers Can Save Lives – Or Destroy Them
Since the outbreak of Covid-19, the New York Times has published various maps with very detailed corona data in a series of articles. Some of these show how post-lockdown mobility has changed for Americans. Others reveal corona hotspots in the country.
In all cases, however, the newspaper received this information via trackers in smartphones from the Cuebiq company. Although the New York Times had previously been very critical of precisely this, the editorial team now seems to be rethinking it.
A similar example is the US company Tectonics. The company published a video with colourful dots that moved across the country in connection with Corona. They symbolised students who had partied on the beach in Florida during spring break – and we’re now spreading the virus across the country.
But if these trackers help save lives, then using the data is legitimate – proper? Perhaps. But the problem is: the tracker information from our smartphones is not always used for such noble purposes.
This is how it became known how the data company Mobilewalla collected information on gender, age and race from Black Lives Matter demonstrators – without their knowledge.
The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, found out that precisely such tracker data ended up with authorities who used it to track down illegal immigrants. This makes it clear: trackers are neither good nor bad. But they are currently one of the most influential tech tools.
How Do Trackers Work On Your Smartphone?
Of course, you don’t have an actual digital spy on your smartphone. Instead, apps help collect your data. This works via software development kits – so-called SDKs. The SDKs are not accurate trackers either. But they are the channel through which your information gets to external parties.
In a technical sense, SDKs help apps perform specific features. If an app wants you to log in via Facebook as well, the app developers access the Facebook SDK. For example, app developers use the Google Maps SDK when an app needs to access your map functionality.
Because it is relatively complex and expensive to develop an SDK from scratch, this has also developed into a side business in the app world. Companies develop good SDKs and make them available to app developers for free.
These ready-made kits make programming the apps more manageable and cheaper for the developers and provide a better user experience. The SDKs built into the app send user data to the company in return.
There are now entire databases of such SDKs, through which an incredible amount of user data flows.
Let’s say you use a weather app that accesses your location. Then the location information reaches the app owners and via SDKs to the companies that just developed the original SDK – and passed it on to the developers of the weather app.
The Business With User Data
The companies interested in this data primarily want it to send targeted advertising to users. Personalised advertising for smartphones is big business. In 2019, $190 billion flowed into mobile advertising worldwide. In 2022 it could be more than 280 billion US dollars.
Of course, it is not only location data from smartphones that interest advertisers. It can also be information about your salary, sexuality, dreams and fears.
The more you know about a user, the more relevant advertising they can get. This is precisely why companies are interested in having as many SDKs in circulation as possible.
Since the app developers use them, they don’t know precisely what is being tracked. This is precisely what can sometimes go wrong. For example, an SDK for the video conferencing tool Zoom sent more data to Facebook than intended – according to Zoom, an accident.
Of course, Zoom isn’t the only app that does this. As early as 2018, the federal information portal for safe mobile phone use, Mobilsicher, published a report that showed that Tinder, Grindr, Curvy or For Diabetes and many other apps also have similar problems.
So the SDK problem is not new. However, the extent of this only becomes apparent through the increased data collection during Corona and the increased use of certain apps such as Zoom.
Of course, something similar also happens via cookies in the browser. But SDKs are much more powerful since we have our smartphones with us almost always and everywhere and, of course, use many different apps for all sorts of things.
Now the companies behind the SDKs claim that the data collected is anonymized. That may even be true. But suppose you have enough anonymized data on a person. In that case, it’s not a problem for data brokers to assign them, Norman Sadeh, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, told Recode.
How Can You Protect Yourself From Trackers On Your Smartphone?
So much in advance: You cannot turn off the tracking completely. Finally, the SDKs also have technically essential functions for the apps. But you can, for example, in your app settings.
You can turn off ad tracking or at least limit it, especially with social media apps such as Facebook, Twitter or Google.
Also, only allow access to your location from an app when necessary. It can also help to only turn on the location function on your smartphone when you need it.
In the background, operating system operators such as Apple are also trying to switch off many tracking functions of the apps in advance. Because otherwise, you would soon have to tick 50 ticks before each app download.
Of course, as a user, you cannot rely on Apple or Google to make the apps more secure. Data protection laws such as the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) are an essential building block for more privacy for users. They also offer developers clear guidelines.
But some also believe that the ad tracking boom is over. Companies are also turning their backs on Facebook because sales from personalised advertising is no longer increasing – at least according to Sean O’Brien from the Yale Privacy Lab.
We are at a point where the difference between revenue from personalised and non-personalized advertising is minimal.
But that’s just speculation at this point. And slowly, some radical AI pioneers’ suggestion sounds more enjoyable: As users, we should get money for our data by now.