Greater transparency in smartphone apps

Data sovereignty Greater transparency in smartphone apps

The Appchecker allows all smartphone users to see what personal data the apps on their phone gather, and who the data is passed on to. In this interview project manager Miriam Ruhenstroth, explains why so many people have the feeling that their phone is spying on them.

The photo shows Miriam Ruhenstroth.

Smartphone users should always ask what the business model behind the app is, advises Miriam Ruhenstroth.

Photo: Miriam Ruhenstroth

Ms Ruhenstroth, why should I find out about what personal data a smartphone app gathers? 

Miriam Ruhenstroth: It is important because this data can be used to produce a user profile. The profiles include extremely detailed information including where you live, your interests or even any financial or health issues you may have. The information can be used to discriminate against users. Many people don’t know what information an app passes on. We are concerned with transparency, first and foremost. We want to make it clear what the apps do and who gets the data. 

What are the data used for? Customised advertising? 

Ruhenstroth: The system of the data-driven economy goes further than interests-based advertising. An entire branch has specialised in gathering as much data as possible. In many cases these databases are used for more than just customised advertising. A person’s creditworthiness, for instance, can be assessed.

Lots of people believe that their phone is spying on them. That’s how precisely advertising is targeted to your latest personal interests. This phenomenon builds on the profiles in the background. It’s not that your phone is spying on you, but profiles are now very exact. They include not only your own interests, but those of whoever you are talking to or who is in the vicinity. That makes precise predictions possible. And this information can also be abused. If, for instance, somebody is vulnerable because they are depressed, or if they have addition problems, they can be manipulated.

Is it not enough to refuse to give apps the right to use my location or telephone directory?

Ruhenstroth: Just refusing an app certain rights might be a good piece of advice, but it cannot be the solution. If you want to buy a car, I can’t say to you that the car is safe but only as long as you don’t turn left. As a user I want to be able to use all the functions of an app. There can be good reasons for an app to look for contacts or friends – but it doesn’t need to send the data straight to an external provider. 

What should I look out for if I want to use apps?

Ruhenstroth: All users can express their will, by making an active choice. That has been difficult until now. If you want to download an app from the major app stores, you don’t see which app uses which data – there is no transparency. You cannot rely on the play stores ranking lists – they do not take data protection into account at all. If you want to download an app you should always ask first what the business model behind the app is. If you pay nothing, and there is no other plausible explanation as to why it is free, it is usually an app that gathers data. You can watch out for this. You should also check platforms like the Appchecker to see what data the app gathers. 

Data Check for SmartphoneApps is a project of iRights e.V. and Institut für Technik und Journalismus e.V.. It is financed by the Federal Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection. A total of 30,000 apps have been investigated using a rapid test, and 3,000 apps have been analysed in detail. The database currently includes only German apps that are available free of charge for Android phones. The apps were classed on a scale of 1 (no risk) to 5 (highly problematic). Of the 3,000 apps investigated in detail, 62 were classed as no risk and given the grade 1. 

You will find more information on dealing with data in the Data Strategy of the German Federal Government. The strategy was adopted recently by the Cabinet, and sets out 240 measures to help make Germany a trailblazer in the innovative use and sharing of data in Europe.