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Android, iOS apps skirt privacy policy to share user data with advertisers [u]

iOS 4 attacked for limiting adware creep

Recognizing the potential for mobile devices running third party software to exploit users' privacy, Apple has adopted an increasingly strict privacy policy for iOS, which forbids software makers from collecting private information, including location data, and using this for any purpose other than crafting anonymously relevant advertising. Additionally, Apple insists that app makers clearly disclose the information they collect; the company threatens to remove apps that fail to follow its policies.

As a mobile advertiser, Apple also has a privacy policy that it applies to its own platform. It enables users to opt-out of ads that use location data to refine their relevancy. In addition to opting out of iAd location-based ads, Apple also enables iOS users to turn off Location Services universally, or to switch off the ability of individual apps to request location data. Apps must also ask the user for permission to look up their location.

These efforts to protect users, which have not been duplicated by other mobile platforms, were targeted earlier this year in a report by David Sarno of the LA Times, which caused panic after it suggested Apple was tracking iPhone users' "precise" locations in some radical new way that other devices weren't, and incorrectly assumed that users were powerless to do anything about it.

In iOS 4, Apple enabled iAd and other independent ad networks to collect private information, but the company limits this data collection exclusively for use in improving ad relevance. Apple's SDK rules specifically forbid developers from including code in their apps that would forward private user information to third parties for any other reason, something the company's chief executive Steve Jobs characterized as granting users "freedom from programs that steal your private data."

Sarno's report resulted in a US Congressional inquiry into Apple's privacy policy, to which the company responded, "Apple does not share any interest-based or location-based information about individual customers, including the zip code calculated by the iAd server, with advertisers. Apple retains a record of each ad sent to a particular device in a separate iAd database, accessible only by Apple, to ensure that customers do not receive overly repetitive and/or duplicative ads for administrative purposes."

Google fights for mobile adware

Critics of Apple's privacy policy have claimed the company is trying to kill rival ad networks on the iOS platform by preventing other ad networks from harvesting users' private data, such as their GPS location, as they display ads within apps. Google's chief executive Eric Schmidt said Apple's ad restrictions were "discriminatory against other partners," including Google's own AdMob, which competes against Apple's iAd for mobile revenue.

Android does not appear to have any restrictions on the private user data that apps can forward to third parties. Google also does not have an app approval process like Apple's App Store. This has led to malware attacks from apps listed in the Android Market, which have destroyed users' data, installed adware and sent spam to contacts email accounts.

The lack of platform-wide privacy policy enforcement on Google's Android has also resulted in developers collecting inappropriate data, including users' phone numbers and potentially voicemail passwords, without users' knowledge or consent.

Known occurrences of the misuse of private data within Android apps are based on independent testing of individual apps, and is not exhaustive. Apps may reach widespread circulation for months before their actual activities are discovered, as there is no curation of Android Market provided by Google and there is nothing preventing the distribution of malware outside the official Android software store.

Google's Android platform is also more susceptible to pressure from adware proponents because a much greater percentage of Android software is ad-supported rather than purchased outright by the end user.

The developer behind "Angry Birds" noted that ad-supported software is "the Google way," and recent market data by Distimo indicates that Android's app catalog has roughly twice the number of free apps as other popular platforms, thanks to Google's policies promoting ad-supported software.