Are my apps spying on me? A paranoid’s guide to digital life

Dan Rafter 31 Jul 2023

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't watching you. Here's the answer to that age-old question: Are my apps spying on me?

Downloaded a weather app to your phone? You might think it’s no big deal, just a quick way to determine if you should grab your umbrella before heading out on a lunch date. But that weather app? It might be spying on you and selling the information it collects to advertisers.  

Weather apps have long been accused of sharing the location data of their users with marketing and advertising companies. It’s a way for these apps to make money. But it’s also a hit to your privacy.  

If you’re worried that some of your favorite apps are tracking how often you buy eggs at your local supermarket or which coffee shops you favor? You’re not being paranoid. Your apps are snooping on you and selling your data.  

Fortunately, you can take steps to regain at least some of your privacy. It’s about avoiding the spammiest of apps and setting the right privacy settings on the apps you do download.  

Stormy weather 

The behavior of weather apps provides a good example of how nosey these programs can be.  

In 2019, the Los Angeles city attorney sued the Weather Channel, claiming that the company's app gathered the location data of millions of uses without properly disclosing that it was also sharing this information with advertisers.  

In 2020, the city reached a settlement requiring the Weather Channel app to notify users that they are being tracked instead of hiding this information in its often-ignored privacy policies.  

This doesn't mean, though, that the Weather Channel app isn't still monitoring your location and selling that information. It just means that the app must notify you of this in a pop-up when you first download it. It must send you another pop-up whenever the app is updated. 

The Weather Channel isn’t the only weather app that shares location data with third parties. The popular AccuWeather app has made the news for the same thing. In 2019, the BBC reported on the ways in which the app Weather Forecast—World Weather Accurate Radar spied on its users. This app asked for users' geographic locations, email addresses and International Mobile Equipment Identity numbers, a 15-digit code that is used to identify users' devices. 

The lesson here? It might be better to check your local news sources online for the forecast instead of installing a weather app on your phone.  

Other snoops 

Weather apps aren’t the only ones snooping on you. Social media apps some of the worst offenders -- food-delivery apps, YouTube, and apps that help you search for train tickets all rank among some of the biggest snoops, sharing your purchase history, locations, contact information, and search histories with third parties, most often advertisers.  

Cloud storage provider pCloud published a study in 2021 of what it considered the most invasive apps, those that spied the most on its users. The results? The company found that 52% of the apps it studied shared user data with third parties.  

Among the worst offenders?  

Instagram topped the list. The social media site shared its users' purchases, location, contact information, contacts, search history, usage data, financial data, and diagnostics information with third parties. pCloud said that Instagram collected 79% of its users' personal data.  

Facebook came in second place, sharing users' purchases, contact information, location, contacts, user content, diagnostics, and financial information with third parties.  

Next came another social media site, LinkedIn, which pCloud says shares its users' purchases, location, contact information, user content, search history, identifiers, and usage data.  

Delivery service Uber Eats ranked fourth, the first non-social media site on the list, sharing its users’ purchases, location, contact information, search history, identifiers ,and usage data with third parties.  

Trainline, a service that allows users to search for train tickets, pulled up in the fifth spot, sharing its users’ purchase, location, contact, search history, and usage data.   

Other popular apps on pCloud’s list include:  

  • YouTube 
  • YouTube Music 
  • Deliveroo 
  • Duolingo 
  • eBay 
  • TikTok 
  • ESPN 
  • Reddit 
  • Snapchat 
  • Spotify 
  • CNN 
  • Pandora 
  • Hulu 
  • Roku 
  • Amazon Prime 
  • Grindr 
  • Tinder 
  • Twitter 
  • Wish 
  • Nike 
  • CNBC 
  • AOL 
  • Turbo Tax 
  • Coinbase 
  • DoorDash  

What can you do?  

The odds are high that many of the apps you use the most are on this list. This doesn’t mean, though, that you can’t boost your online privacy. It doesn’t mean, either, that you should delete all your favorite apps.  

You can increase your privacy by tweaking the settings of the apps you’ve downloaded.  

The Federal Trade Commission recommends that you regularly review the permissions that the apps on your phone request. You can access these permissions by going to your phone's "Settings" and then clicking on "Apps." 

  • Look for permissions that an app shouldn't need to function. The Federal Trade Commission recommends that you pay special attention to apps that request access to your contact list, camera, location and microphone. Apps can nab plenty of information about you -- including where you shop, how often you shop at these places, who your friends are and even what you say from these permissions that it can then share with third parties. If you discover an app that requests access to your phone’s camera even though it shouldn’t need it? Either delete the app or remove permission for that app to use this feature of your device. 
  • An app might need access to your phone's, laptop's, or tablet's location services. You can, though, limit these apps so that they can only access this information when you are using it. When you are not using the app, it won't be able to track your location.  
  • The commission also recommends not automatically signing into apps through a social network account such as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. If you do this, the app might be able to collect your personal information from that social media account. It might also let the social media account collect information from the app. It's better to sign into your apps with your email address and a unique password.  
  • And maybe the best advice of all? The Federal Trade Commission recommends that you delete any apps that you don't need. If you are no longer using an app, get rid of it. 

You can protect your privacy, too, by being selective about the apps you download. Before downloading an app, research it online. If users have privacy concerns, you’ll find reports online. And only download apps from trusted sites such as Apple’s The App Store and Google’s Android App Store. 

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