Study shows how smartphone apps extract sensitive data via location tracking

As more smartphone users join the existing sea of smartphones users across the globe, only a few are aware of the risks that come along with the gizmo. A recent study has found that granting permissions and access to certain apps can lead to personal information being leaked via the phone’s location tracking feature.

This is the first extensive study that sheds light on a range of personal information that can be extracted using the location tracking ability of the phone.

The study by two researchers from the University of Bologna in Italy and the University College London in the UK also shed light on how the collection of such data is a violation of the users’ privacy.

How do apps extract sensitive data?

In order to test this out, the researchers developed a mobile app – TrackingAdvisor – that collects user’s location data continuously.

From the same data, the app was able to extract personal information and ask users to provide feedback on the legitimacy of the information as well as to rate its relevance in terms of privacy sensitivity.

“Users are largely unaware of the privacy implications of some permissions they grant to apps and services, in particular when it comes to location-tracking information”, said Mirco Musolesi from the University of Bologna.

What information do the apps collect?

Using machine learning, the app and other tools provide sensitive information such as the home address of users, their habits, demographics, interests and information about their personalities.

Through the app, researchers were also able to identify what kind of personal information the app extracted and its privacy sensitivity according to users. The study was conducted on 69 users for at least two weeks.

The TrackAdvisor app tracked more than 2,00,000 locations, identifying almost 2,500 places and then collecting approximately 5,000 pieces of information concerning both personality and demographics.

Among the data that was gathered, researchers found that sensitive information about health, socio-economic situation, ethnicity, and religion were also collected.

“We think it is important to show users the amount and quality of information that apps can collect through location tracking”, Musolesi added.

“Equally important for us is to understand whether users think that sharing information with app managers or marketing firms is acceptable or deem it a violation of their privacy”.

How can a tracking system like this be used?

Researchers said that the process of data extraction like this can be used to design and initiate a targeted advertising system.

“Thanks to such systems, users interested — for example – in protecting information about their own health could receive a notification each time they go to a health clinic or hospital”, said Musolesi.

The study also sheds light on the development of a system that can automatically block the collection of sensitive data from third parties thanks to previously defined privacy settings, the authors noted.

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