A Gentler View of Personal Privacy

In which I attempt to use the phrase “individual dossiers” without making you click over to pictures of a cat nursing hedgehogs.

Alan Henry with LifeHacker wrote an piece last week titled “Another Day, Another Hack: What Security News Should You Care About?” It’s aimed at consumers, but it’s a good lesson for companies like ours that it is easy to oversell our particular exploits for our own reputation/profit.

In our rush to market, we tend to add to the noise surrounding privacy security and generally try to scare the crap out of you. This often just makes you tune out.

To maintain your sanity around privacy issues, Alan recommends that you pay attention to just the following areas:

  1. Hacks that require action like password changes or stolen cards
  2. Reports of theft at places you shop
  3. Broad trends and news from trusted experts

I’m here to talk about one of those broad trends.

I’ll make this short and painless:

Some of the apps on your smartphone watch you. I say some, because many of them are good citizens. These apps take only the information they need, and only when you’ve asked them to do it.

Unfortunately, some of them take data that they don’t need, because it is worth a lot of money to the apps’ authors.

These app developers will sometimes sell this data to companies such as Acxiom and BlueKai that maintain individual dossiers on millions of people.

That’s a hell of a word.

Dossiers: we know them from countless Cold War spy flicks. The definition is, “a group of papers that contain detailed information about someone or something.” Some other options are files, information, data. All of which are vague and lack the connotation that brokers build very specific pictures of your identity. So at the risk of sounding like a lunatic, I’m sticking with dossiers.

How can you find some of these apps that are being used to build these pictures of you? SpyAware does that by showing what your phone is doing in real time by monitoring app, sensor and radio behavior (without recording or sending any of your personal data).

It provides you with notifications when your data is taken in unexpected or exceptionally risky ways, providing both awareness of who and what is being taken and the ability to take action to stop it by uninstalling non-system apps.

We at SpyAware also want to help change the way personal data is handled. The app provides an FCC complaint form for unusual behavior. This gives regulators empirical evidence that apps are misusing data—a powerful weapon they don’t currently have.

Users living under repressive governments can know what apps take data about them and where it is sent. If it’s going to servers within their country, they may want to avoid using a particular app.

In the near future, SpyAware will be able to provide recommendations of safe alternatives to apps that are known to harvest data that they don’t need.

We want to give users a clear idea of what’s going on with their phone, without overstating our case or terrifying anyone. That makes people hide in foxholes, not take action.

Check out SpyAware to learn where your data is going. Or see the cat and her prickly kittens here.

I did both.

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