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App tracking: how to protect your data privacy

Data security and privacy are growing concerns for consumers. And now, with Roe v. Wade overturned and abortions expected to become illegal in many U.S. states, some serious app data tracking issues have surfaced. Let’s look at what Roe v. Wade being overturned means for data privacy, what information apps collect about you, and how to keep your data safe when using apps.

Ema Globytė

Ema Globytė

App tracking: how to protect your data privacy

The Roe v. Wade ruling: what are the data privacy concerns?

The Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, ending the protection of abortion as a constitutional right that has been in place for five decades. As a result of the ruling, as many as 22 states are expected to restrict or criminalize abortion.

The revoking of federal abortion rights has caused people to worry about data privacy on period-tracking apps, which at least 55 million women in the U.S. use. Many American women have already chosen to delete period tracking apps from their phones amid fears of their sensitive data being used to prosecute them. And these fears are not baseless.

Can apps be legally required to share your personal data?

As you would expect, tech companies must comply with legal regulations. If authorities were to conduct an investigation into someone seeking or facilitating abortion in one of the states where termination is outlawed, period-tracking companies would need to hand over the data collected on the individual to the court.

According to a tech outlet Protocol, if a company is ordered by the court to supply individual user data, it can push back – but will have to hand it over about 80% of the time.

The concern over the privacy of period-tracking data feeds into the wider debate about the personal information smartphones and apps collect — and share with other parties. Without a doubt, the Supreme Court ruling is another call for users to become more mindful of their digital presence and increase their digital hygiene.

Serious privacy issues to date

Numerous controversies around sensitive user data collected by apps and occasions when it ended up in the wrong hands have arisen.

Flo shared sensitive user data with Facebook

In 2019, a popular period-tracking app, Flo, came under fire for sharing user data with Facebook from 2016 to 2019 without their consent. Information shared included when a user was last on their period and if they intended to get pregnant.

In 2021, Flo reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, which required an independent review of Flo’s privacy policy and the company to get app users’ permission before sharing their health data.

WhatsApp made a controversial privacy policy update

In 2021, WhatsApp updated its privacy policy, raising many questions about the enormous amount of personal data it collects.

To make matters worse — if you didn’t agree to the privacy policy, you’d gradually see a decline in the app’s function and lose essential app features. Your choice would be to agree to the privacy policy or use a less functional app.

Uber was hit with a massive security breach (more than once)

Uber has a patchy data security record with a fair share of data breaches over the years. The biggest breach happened in 2017, when hackers accessed the driver’s license numbers of 600,000 drivers in the U.S., along with information about 57 million Uber riders and drivers globally (like their names, email addresses, and phone numbers).

What type of data do apps collect about you?

The truth is that every app on your phone collects some level of data about you. The app should disclose the exact information it tracks in its privacy policy.

However, research shows only 9% of Americans read privacy policies all the time, with 13% saying they read them often. So it isn’t surprising that many of us don’t know what information we’re allowing these apps to track!

Here’s what data apps can collect:

  • Your location
  • Health and fitness info
  • Financial info
  • Your contacts
  • Browsing history
  • Search history
  • Purchase history
  • Usage data

The app can then use this information in many ways: to gain consumer insights, refine marketing strategies, show you targeting advertising and tailored pricing — or sell it to third parties.

How to protect your privacy on apps

Before you download an app

  • Research the app. Run a quick Google search to see if the app has any red flags. Read the app’s reviews on app stores and forums to make sure the app is secure and reliable. Your phone’s security and privacy aren’t something to take lightly, so look at multiple sources before you get the app for your phone.
  • Download from official stores. Always get your apps from trusted app stores like the App Store and Google Play. While unofficial app stores are available to use, these won’t always have systems to check that an app is safe before it’s published and available to download. Getting an app from an unofficial source carries a risk of it being modified by criminals.
  • Read the app’s privacy policy. This one is key right now. Before downloading an app, check the small print. What information will the app track? What will it share with third parties? Make sure you’re happy with the level of privacy the app offers. And if you’re not, look for an alternative.
  • Get to know your data permissions. When you download an app, you’ll be asked to give various permissions to access your data. Make sure they make sense to you. If, for example, a photo editing app is requesting access to your contacts or microphone, something’s not quite right.
  • Remember: free apps are not really free. Every “free” app you download has a price. If you’re not paying for it, then it’s likely that you’re the product. Think about whether the app is worth what you’re giving up.

On apps you already have

  • Limit location permissions. Many apps request access to your phone’s location services, so ensure you know which apps you’ve granted access to. Go to your phone’s Settings > Location. It’s best to allow apps to track your location only when using the app, rather than all the time.
  • Review all permissions. Turn off the permissions you don’t want or need, and consider deleting the apps that ask for many permissions (especially if they’re not needed for the app’s functionality). You should pay particular attention to permissions like camera, microphone, storage, location, and contact list.
  • Keep apps up to date. Make sure you update apps when updates are available. Out-of-date apps are more susceptible to hacking, putting your personal data at risk.
  • Don’t automatically sign in with social network accounts. If you’re logging in to an app with your social media account, the app can collect information from the account and vice versa. For added privacy, use your email address and a strong password.
  • Delete apps you don’t use. If an app is sitting unused on your screen and you’re not getting anything from it, delete it. Chances are it’s still collecting data on you even if you’re not using it, so best to be safe.

Ema Globytė
Ema Globytė Ema Globytė
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