Android housekeeping pt 2: Advertising and Analytics

Overview.

Last time we looked at the best ways to stay secure while using Android.  Today I wanted to follow up by looking at a couple of the more commonly accepted ways we often eagerly give our data away.

Advertising.

The lure of many apps is that they are supposedly “free”.  While you may not pay a monetary fee directly to use the app, most of these “free” apps make their money either by displaying ads while you use the app (and hoping that you will tap on them and buy things from advertisers), or by collecting your personal data.  Additionally, these apps consume much more battery and internet data, than the same app if it wasn’t displaying ads.  (More info: http://www.talkandroid.com/100606-study-over-70-of-android-battery-drain-caused-by-ads/   Also a good article here: http://mobithinking.com/blog/greedy-apps ).  For this reason, paying a dollar or so for an ad-free version of an app you really like, is, I believe, a much better investment that using the ad supported version.

Analytics


Analytics are another drain on resources and also quietly pluck information about you from your phone, and send it to a third party on the internet.  These are included as part of the advertising code, however there are also dedicated analytics services such as Flurry and Google Analytics which can be present in apps with no advertising.


Ostensibly, analytics services track how you use an app in order to help the developer improve the app, however these ‘services’ can track anything you do in that app, any information you enter and then send your personal data (email address, name, location, even health and medical information) on to advertising and other companies beyond the original app developer (http://www.mediabistro.com/appnewser/flurry-analytics-are-tracking-more-smart-phone-users-than-google-or-facebook_b41982 and http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/b709cf4a-12dd-11e3-a05e-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2rkcsrX6y also http://www.mobilovesme.com/privacy-concerns-with-iphone-and-android-apps/ )


Recent reports have highlighted government tracking of users through apps from Google Maps to Angry Birds.  In general it seems this information gathering was simply piggy backing what was already being harvested commercially ((http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/national-international/NATL-NSA-Spy-Spying-Angry-Birds-Google-Maps-Phone-Apps-Smartphone-Snowden-242258731.html and http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/27/nsa-gchq-smartphone-app-angry-birds-personal-data )


Even if you are happy to give away your data for a free app, remember that these services all need internet access in order to send back data (and in the case of ad providers, to retrieve the ads themselves), and many also use other permissions (such as location information) simply for these additional services, so these are extra permissions you need to give apps.

Identifying app add-ons

There are a number of apps which will uncover what add-ons your apps contain.  This can be useful for both detecting which apps use things like notification bar advertising and also for seeing which analytics and advertising services are used by your apps.  A couple I like are:


AppBrain Ad Detector: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.appspot.swisscodemonkeys.detector


AppBrain includes their own analytics but aside from that I quite like this one as you can see information about the add-ons used by an app and then do things like launch or uninstall apps or go to their play store entry directly.


Addons Detector:
https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.denper.addonsdetector


This one is great for seeing apps you’ve recently installed and also for seeing the specific permissions used by an app as well as its add-ons.


Personally I don’t think the tracking, battery drain and annoying intrusiveness of ads is worth saving a couple dollars.  I may install an app with ads if it doesn’t ask for too many permissions, just to check whether I like it, and if so I will always buy the full version.  I’ve also talked to developers who have stated that they receive hardly any revenue from advertising, which makes me even less in favour of supporting advertising and data collection as a business model.


Summary:

–          Many apps might appear free to download, however app advertising and analytics are a drain on battery, internet data and privacy.


–          There are apps you can use to check what add-ons are included in your apps, which can help you be more informed about where they may be sending your personal data.

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