Phones leaking personal details

08:26, December 31, 2010      

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Beware smartphone fans. Each time you turn on your favorite phone applications to play games or deal with business, a "Big Brother" is probably watching, learning about your buying habits or lifestyle so the information can be sold to marketing companies.

An investigation by the Wall Street Journal has found that smartphones are regularly sharing users' personal data.

Its report showed that 56 smartphone apps (games and other applications for iPhone and Android phones) out of 101 tested were sending the phone's unique device ID (UDID) to companies without the user's knowledge; while 47 sent the phone's locations and five sent personal information, such as age and gender.

Companies who receive the UDID can use it to track down the phone user, monitor the user's download history and how much time is spent on each app, making it easier for them to know their "customer" better, the report said.

The report cited an example of one man labeled a "diehard gamer" by an advertising company for being aged 15 to 25, male, owning 20-plus apps on his phone and spending more than 20 minutes on them at one time.

The man would probably receive spam messages, designed to cater to his taste, after advertisement companies started to keep an eye on him.

A senior engineer surnamed Wang with China Unicom's iPhone Technology Center told Shanghai Daily he was aware of the privacy problem but so far they couldn't find any evidence of abuse.

"The UDID code is the ID of a specific phone," Wang said. "Take the iPhone for example, the code is transmitted to an app's server every time an app is purchased and downloaded via iTunes."

By collecting the uses of the code, companies can learn what apps users have purchased and what their favorites are.

Sometimes companies are even able to track down the phone number and the ICCID (Integrate Circuit Card Identity, or the SIM card's ID number), Wang said.

Smartphone users cannot do much to hide from advertising companies because they can't find direct evidence to show which app, among thousands, is passing on the personal information.

Companies, however, say collecting users' personal information is necessary to provide better services, such as the LBS (location-based service) and news services.

LBS developers can provide users with details about shopping, cinemas, coffee shops and bars, according to their location and habits.

The Journal is calling for a privacy policy so apps have to inform users if they want to receive the phone's information.

Source: Shanghai Daily
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