This year’s resolution: remove nosey apps from your device

Emma McGowan 22 Dec 2023

Some apps are plain greedy—like a stranger you invite for a meal who insists on ordering everything on the menu. Except instead of the burger, fries, and ice-cream sundae, it’s your data they’re hoovering up. Here’s what you can do to set some boundaries.

Last year, a thoughtful friend gifted me a gimbal for my phone. A gimbal is a special handle with a gyroscopic motor that takes your mobile filming to the next…you know what, it’s not important. Here’s what upset me: After I downloaded the companion app that helps control it for my phone, the app wanted permission to make and receive phone calls. Phone calls—for a camera handle! Then it wanted access to my contact list, and asked if it could have full access to my device data storage.  

I walked away—and frankly, we all should be doing the same. Ask the critical questions of what an app needs, what it wants, and how useful the app is if you refuse to grant that permission. Think of it as a New Year’s resolution for your personal privacy: in 2024, I will force all my apps to mind their own business. 

Breaking up with an app isn’t always so easy. Last year, Meta—the parent company of Facebook and Instagram (and now Threads—Zuck’s answer to X, formerly Twitter)—faced a class action lawsuit over its alleged tracking of users’ whereabouts even after they had turned off location settings on their phones. Although it didn’t admit guilt, Meta agreed to cough up $37.5 million as part of a settlement. 

Yet even knowing this, I chose to keep Meta’s apps on my phone and laptop. Getting rid of them would be too painful. I’ve grown to think of my Instagram account as my personal photo album, carefully curated over the best part of a decade. And even though I don’t use my Facebook account much these days and have tried to split up with it twice since 2011, it keeps reeling me back in because it’s such an easy way to stay up to date with my extended network of family and friends.  

Whether or not to keep an app, or to restrict its access to your data, is a very personal decision. But knowledge is power, and being aware of the threats some apps pose can only be a good thing. 

So how much do your apps know about you? 

Most likely more than you realize. Take location data. According to a New York Times investigation, some 200 million mobile devices report location data to smartphone apps, and some of those log a user’s location as many as 14,000 times in a single day. That’s over 580 times an hour, or nearly 10 times a minute. Big Brother much? 

 In addition to your location, some apps want access to your contacts, camera, microphone, text messages, phone logs—even your calendar. The question is not just how much of this personal information are your apps harvesting, but rather do they really need so much? 

In some cases, the answer is yes. If you want to post TikTok videos of yourself doing the Swag Bouncee dance move, the app is obviously going to need to access your camera and mic. And if you really want that safe-driver insurance discount from Farmers, you’ll need to let the app track your movements. It’s when apps start asking for permissions that have nothing to do with their stated function that alarm bells should start ringing in your head. 

What happens to the data your apps collect? 

 In many cases, companies that collect your location data turn around and sell it to brokers, aggregators, and advertisers. Your location can reveal a lot about your routines, shopping habits, hobbies, and passions, so it’s no surprise that these third parties will pay for that information. If your location data shows you visit a CrossFit class three times a week, retailers and advertisers can use that information—combined with your online habits and other data sources—to target ads for the latest compression shorts or solid-soled training shoes. (So, no—your phone isn’t listening to you. It’s just using your data to target stuff.) 

Your location data can also allow other third parties—law enforcement, for example—to infer more sensitive information, such as your religion, sexual orientation, or immigration status. Health information can also be inferred from location data, which can reveal the type of clinic a person visits. This is of particular concern to abortion-seekers and privacy advocates in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade. 

How to protect yourself against threat apps 

Here are a few steps you can take to put greedy apps in their place.  

  • Read data collection policies. Privacy policies have a section devoted to data collection. Beware of apps that collect lots of personal data from you and are vague about how they use it. Avoid apps that don’t let you opt out of sharing data with third parties. 
  • Beware of “free” apps. That uncle who reminds you there’s no such thing as a free lunch isn’t lying. Even though your name won’t be attached to anonymized data, your age, gender, shopping activities, and location will all be rolled up into mountains of aggregated user data that third parties can monetize. 
  • Check your phone’s permissions for installed apps. In your Privacy & Security setting, you can select functions like Contacts, Photos, and Camera to see which third-party apps have requested permission to access this information. Tap the slider to halt access. 
  • Delete unused apps. Audit your apps from time to time and delete those you don’t use anymore or don’t recognize, especially if their data-sharing practices sound offensive. If you want to opt out permanently—for example, if you don’t trust a company—you’ll also want to delete your account. 
  • Protect your device from malware. As a final backstop against malware and other threats that may have infiltrated your device, install malware protection. 

Here’s to a 2024 of well-behaved apps that know their manners. 

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