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There is no privacy at all with mobile phones: Study reveals large scale of data-sharing from Android mobile phones

 

Android and Google data sharing. Credit: Trinity College Dublin



An in-depth analysis of a range of popular Android mobile phones has revealed significant data collection and sharing, including with third parties, with no opt-out available to users.

Even when minimally configured and the handset is idle, with the notable exception of e/OS, these vendor-customized Android variants transmit substantial amounts of information to the OS developer and to third parties such as Google, Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Facebook that have pre-installed system apps. There is no opt-out from this data collection.

While occasional communication with OS servers is to be expected, the authors of the study say the observed data transmission goes well beyond this and raises a number of privacy concerns.

Key findings from the study:

With the exception of e/OS, all of the handset manufacturers examined collect a list of all the apps installed on a handset. This is potentially sensitive information since it can reveal user interests, e.g., a mental health app, a Muslim prayer app, a gay dating app, a Republican news app. There is no opt out from this data collection.

The Xiaomi handset sends details of all the app screens viewed by a user to Xiaomi, including when and how long each app is used. This reveals, for example, the timing and duration of phone calls. The effect is akin to the use of cookies to track people's activity as they move between web pages. This data appears to be sent outside Europe to Singapore.

On the Huawei handset the Swiftkey keyboard sends details of app usage over time to Microsoft. This reveals, for example, when a user is writing a text, using the search bar, searching for contacts.

Samsung, Xiaomi, Realme and Google collect long-lived device identifiers, e.g., the hardware serial number, alongside user-resettable advertising identifiers. This means that when a user resets an advertising identifier the new identifier value can be trivially re-linked back to the same device, potentially undermining the use of user-resettable advertising identifiers.

Third-party system apps, e.g., from Google, Microsoft, LinkedIn and Facebook, are pre-installed on most of the handsets and silently collect data, with no opt out.

There may exist a data ecosystem where data collected from a handset by different companies is shared/linked. Notably, the privacy focused e/OS variant of Android was observed to transmit essentially no data.

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Last modified: September 20, 2023