Study: Half of Apple Apps Leak User Info

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NEW YORK (MainStreet) – There may be an app for everything these days, but according to one new study, there may also be a hidden risk to using many of these apps, at least when it comes to Apple (Stock Quote: AAPL).

Researchers at the Technical University of Vienna and the University of California, Santa Barbara, along with two other universities, analyzed 1,400 iPhone and iPad apps and found that the majority of them leaked sensitive information about the user or their device without notifying the user first.

The researchers developed their own software to analyze each of these apps to determine which leaked potentially sensitive data to a third party without first asking for the user’s consent. Sensitive information, in this case can refer to anything, from your GPS location and the unique user ID for your device to having access to your contacts and e-mail addresses.

Overall, the study found that a small fraction of applications (44 in total) leak personal information about users. These include apps like Gowalla, a social networking tool, which leaks e-mail addresses from your contacts to the developer without asking permission.

The more common privacy issue found in this study is that about 750 of these apps leaked the unique user identification number for the device. At first blush, this may sound like a benign problem, but according to the researchers, this ID can be traced back to you eventually.

“While these IDs cannot be directly linked to a user’s identity, they allow third parties to profile user behavior,” the researchers wrote. “Moreover, there is always the risk that outside information can be used to eventually make the connection between the device ID and a user.”

In particular, the researchers point to third-party applications like Facebook, which have the ability to link this ID number to a user’s profile if they have installed the social networking app on their phone or tablet. So from this device ID, a developer could potentially find out more personal information about you online.

Until now, much of the concern about privacy has been focused on sites like Facebook that track users’ personal information and have sometimes been found to share it with advertisers. But this study could shift the conversation into the world of apps as well.

Of course, there are some major caveats with this report. For starters, this study does not indicate which apps, if any, share personal information with advertisers or other third party groups, but simply shows the apps that have the potential to.

Perhaps more importantly, the researchers here only studied 1,400 apps, and nearly 600 of these are apps that can only be found on Cydia, an alternative app store not officially endorsed by Apple. Yet there are now more than 300,000 applications in Apple’s app store, so it’s unclear how good a representation this selection really is.

Still, given that users have now downloaded more than 10 billion apps from Apple, and the average user downloads more than 60 on each mobile device, it seems all the more likely that customers may have at least one app on their iPhone or iPad right now that knows a little more about them than they realize.

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