Debugger

Your Smartphone Apps Are Filled With Trackers You Know Nothing About

The privacy crisis Apple and Google need to fix—now

Owen Williams
Published in
5 min readApr 8, 2019

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Credit: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

MMost of us understand by now that we’re being followed across the web. But how much do we know about how the smartphone apps we use track our every move? Thanks to tiny pieces of code that millions of developers use to make their lives easier, an array of companies gets free access to data they can employ to understand your habits. The process is invisible, and it’s worse news for you than you might think.

When we browse the web through Google Chrome, for example, a dizzying array of companies follow us. Such is the Wild West of our modern web, but you still remain in control of which sites you visit and which social networks you log into.

The shift to native apps changes this equation, however. Suddenly you’re no longer in full control of what’s loaded, nor of who is tracking you, and you must trust app developers to do the right thing.

All of this should make you skeptical of marketing like Apple’s recent “privacy matters” campaign.

On mobile, tracking is generally performed through the use of a “software development kit” or SDK—a set of tools that helps app developers get something done faster. Many SDKs help developers debug their code or hook into useful services, but others help advertisers and marketing companies peer into your private life. Take the iHeartRadio app for example: Last fall, Medium reported that it contained code from Cuebiq’s SDK, which would permit user data to be sold for the purposes of ad tracking.

All of this should make you skeptical of marketing like Apple’s recent “privacy matters” campaign. While the company offers tools within Safari to block trackers on the web, it doesn’t offer any control over trackers embedded in apps that are distributed through the iOS App Store. Most people use the Google Chrome browser anyway, and it has even fewer privacy protections baked in. (Apple does ask developers to “respect user preferences for how data is used,” but good luck with that.)

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Owen Williams
OneZero

Fascinated by how code and design is shaping the world. I write about the why behind tech news. Design Manager in Tech. https://twitter.com/ow