Dozens of companies are tracking you via your Android phone

It’s probably happening on iPhones, too.

We’re used to the idea of Google and Facebook mining our personal data. We justify it because in return we get to use some pretty powerful and helpful products and services for free or for cheap.

What most of us don’t realize, however, is that embedded in some of the most popular apps we use — from Lyft to Accuweather to Microsoft Outlook — are not one but in many cases multiple trackers from dozens of different companies that are collecting massive amounts of data about their users.

DoubleClick, Fidzup, Teemo, Braze, Salesforce DMP, ScoreCardResearch, Millennial Media, HockeyApp, AppsFlyer, Flurry, Tune, AppNEXUS — you’ve probably never heard of these companies, but they know all about you.

An article at The Intercept lays this all out in chilling detail as it summarizes the recently published findings of research into 40 trackers by Yale Privacy Lab and French nonprofit Exodus Privacy.

The data these trackers collect includes, but is not limited to: web browsing habits, web search history, download history, physical location, contacts, call history, the other apps you use and how often you use them, and even sleeping habits.

The thought of scores of companies collecting as much data as they can about us — each with their own privacy policies, sometimes lacking the ability to opt-out— should make us feel uncomfortable, if not deeply concerned.

Only Android apps were tested, but there is no reason to assume iOS apps would be much different. The more data these companies collect, the more money they make. Their clients are willing to pay big bucks for the insights this data can provide into their customers’ tastes and habits so they can target their marketing efforts accordingly.

The Implications

If there’s anything we can learn from the massive Equifax breach it’s this: as soon as our personal information leaves our control, anything can happen to it. Each of the companies behind these trackers is collecting data and creating profiles about people without their knowledge or consent. They claim to keep the data they collect secure and private — but so did Equifax. They claim to anonymize the data they collect, but can we really be sure? 10 minutes ago we didn’t even know these companies existed.

If just one of these companies is irresponsible with the data they collect, that’s a problem.

How many more potential Equifax-like breaches are just waiting to happen — or have already happened? Uber managed to hide their breach for a year, after all.

And then there is the potential for government surveillance of this data. Whether you think this is a good or bad thing is a topic for another article — probably a series of them. But looking at it objectively, it means yet another organization collecting your data — an organization that has abused this kind of information throughout history and doesn’t have the best track record for keeping sensitive data secure.

What You Can Do About It

Educate yourself. Do a little research of your own. Learn more about these tracking companies and the data they collect. Find out which apps use these trackers. The more informed you are, the better prepared you’ll be to protect yourself.

Delete the apps. If you are concerned about the apps that use these trackers, remove them from your devices. It’s the only sure way to make sure they aren’t collecting data you don’t want them to have. If enough people do this, it will send a message to the app developers that trackers are not welcome.

Tell the developers you deleted their apps. Send an email, tweet, etc. to the developers and company behind the app telling them you deleted it and why. “Hey Spotify, I just deleted your app because it has 4 embedded trackers in it. Not cool!”

Opt-out. Some of these tracking companies allow you to opt-out. Whether or not it actually works, it’s worth a shot. Check out their websites and see what you can find. There are also ways to opt out of ad networks. A StartPage search for “opt out of tracking” turned up lots of promising links.

Care. The pervasiveness of data collection today may seem overwhelming. You might be tempted to believe that nothing you can possibly do can make a difference. But you can make a difference. It may require changing your behavior and finding some creative workarounds to do certain things. But don’t believe anyone who says this is a hopeless cause or a losing battle. Fighting for fundamental human rights — privacy being one of them — is never a lost cause. Just because others are willing to surrender their rights for a little convenience and distraction doesn’t mean you have to roll over and accept it, too.