online privacy

Which of Your Phone's Apps Are Selling Your Private Info?

NBC 7 Responds looked at a recent update to iPhones that pulls back the curtain on personal data collection

NBC Universal, Inc.

The collection and sale of our personal information is worth a lot of money.

Laws have been passed to help protect privacy and let consumers know which websites are storing their information. Apple is also working to make sure you know what apps are collecting data.

"It's gonna be a lot harder for the apps and websites that track you to do so without your specific knowledge," said Scott Peterson, a senior analyst at Gap Intelligence who specializes in smart phones .

For years, there was quick growth in the smartphone industry and privacy was an afterthought, Peterson said.

"The mobile industry has a very rich ecosystem of data sharin, and this is something most consumers aren't aware of," Peterson said. "It's something we just glaze by and accept the terms when we're agreeing to new apps and visiting websites."

There are some features that Apple is rolling out in iOS 14 that aim to help consumers know what data is being used and what apps are asking for. When you go to buy an app from the App Store, you will also see a section that talks about which data an app will use.

"There's two specific things," Peterson said. "They allow apps to request to track, and then you basically approve each app individually as you go along."

Some apps have been tracking people's specific location for years, Peterson said, even when there's not a clear need for that information. One feature of the new iOS will let you share an "approximate location," he said, pointing out that would be all a weather app would need to know.

"It's going to be harder for those marketers and those websites to do something without your explicit permission now," Peterson said. "[Tracking us] isn't something new, we're more newly aware of this as we become more native in our digital environment."

Peterson pointed out that there are times that sharing information is useful, such as when you're using a map application.

"It can also tell publishers how many people are reading a story for example," Peterson said. "It will allow the ad distributors to serve me ads that are relevant to my behavior and I won't get ads that are completely irrelevant for my behavior. ... which I kind of appreciate."

Other features of the new iOS include small colored dots at the top of your phone screen that indicate when an app is actively using your microphone or camera.

While these features are specific to iPhones, Peterson said, Androids have similar protections in place.

"I get an email in my inbox every month from Google, as the Android provider, and it's literally a map of everywhere I've been that has tracked my location," Peterson said.

Being aware of what information your phone is tracking is the first step in protecting your data, Peterson said, adding that it's also a good way to start the new year.

"I'd make a date with yourself to step in and explore these functions on your new phone," Peterson said.

Knowing if an app is actively using their camera and or microphone might calm some fears that people have.

"There's been times where I think my phone is listening to me and I get an ad based on what I was just talking about," Peterson said. "I think these kind of updates are going to minimize the scariness and mystery."

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