What Do Your iPhone Apps Know About You?

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The iPhone is an incredibly powerful and convenient device, capable of storing all of your contact information, making calls, finding restaurants, and much more. Yet all of this comes with a potential risk; the loss of privacy.

Many users want to know exactly what data their iPhone stores, and how it’s shared. The good news is that most information doesn’t leave your phone with your permission, but once you’ve let that data into the wild, you can’t take it back.

Apple Knows All About You (Of Course)

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Apple, like every business, keeps extensive customer records. If you’ve purchased an iPhone from Apple, or you’ve registered a credit card for use on iTunes or the App Store, then the company knows you address, your phone number, and your credit card information. This is true no matter what you do with your phone.

The information Apple has on file can be shared with companies that provide services for Apple, such as customer service or order processing, but it can’t be shared with app developers. Users don’t have to worry about apps stealing credit card information – from Apple, at least.

Contacts, Photos, Location, And More

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Apps that are installed on your iPhone may ask to see your contact information, your location, or even your photos. While these permissions, when asked for, are clear, what’s not always clear is the scope of what the user is agreeing to. In general, telling an app it can access your data means it can not only see that data, but also send and store it on a remote server, if the developer chooses.

This is the reason why some users are paranoid about how their smartphone impacts privacy. In theory, all of this information should be kept private by each app developer, and none of it represents a serious threat by itself. But when the pieces are put together, the situation seems more severe. Apps with permission to access data can theoretically create a detailed profile of your activity, including who you know, where you work, and where you live.

Default Apple apps (i.e. those that come standard on every iPhone) can generally access your data without permission, as you agree to allow them access in the terms of use. There are just a few exceptions, like adding location data to photos. However, any information collected must follow the company’s privacy policy, which means it is not shared with third-party developers unless they are working for Apple to create an app or service.

Old Apps May Know Your UDID

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Apps have to access your personal information, but until recently, they didn’t have to ask for your device’s Unique Device Identifier (UDID). This identifier is unique to your phone, which means it could be used to create a profile of your activity. Though the identifier itself doesn’t directly contain personal information, it’s easy enough to link with minimal research.

Researchers from the University of California recently conducted a study that discovered about half of all apps access the UDID. In response, Apple has eliminated the UDID from iOS 6, and has barred new apps from accessing UDIDs on older devices. Existing apps are not impacted, however, so users on old devices, running older apps, are still vulnerable.

The replacement for the UDID is the Advertising Identifier. Unlike its predecessor, this new ID can be cleared or turned off by the user. To do this open the Settings app and navigate to General > About > Advertising.

Limited App Sharing 

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iPhone apps and can only access data specifically allowed by Apple’s API. Sharing is only possible through a few specific functions which either require user action, or are only usable in multiple apps from the same developer. This means an app can’t covertly begin to access data from other apps.

This is a bit different from Android, where different apps have different permissions, and those permissions are accepted by the user at the time the app is installed. On the flip side, though, Android’s approach provides a lot more information to the user, while Apple’s solution provides almost none.

Revoking Permissions

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Permissions can be revoked by opening the Settings app, entering the Privacy menu, and then browsing through the sharable data shown there. Tapping Contacts, for example, will show you every app which currently has permission to access your contacts data.

Revoking permissions is as simple as sliding the virtual switch, and you can re-approve the permission at any time. But remember; revoking access does not delete what has already been shared. If you provided access, and data was sent to a third-party server, you’ve effectively lost control of it.

Conclusion

Unfortunately for anyone who values privacy, the average iPhone knows quite a bit about its user, and that knowledge is very easy to share. A simple tap of a button is all that’s required to beam away your contacts list or location data. Some users may not find this sharing to be troublesome, but to others, it’s unacceptable.

They key to remaining completely private is to turn off the Advertising Identifier and never, ever give permissions to apps. This may mean you can’t use certain apps, and others might have features disabled, but those who value privacy above all else will find these inconveniences an acceptable sacrifice.

Image Credit: Flickr/Gregoriosz, Wikimedia/RRZEicons

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