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University boffins build snoop-spotting snitch app

Mobile tool detects when apps are pulling location data

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University researchers have developed a smartphone app to show users how often their mobile software tracks their movements.

The team from Rutgers University said that the their Android tool uses a real-time monitoring system to show exactly when an application pulls locational information and transmits it. The results, they say, were eye-opening for many users.

"Our results confirm that the Android platform’s location access disclosure method does not inform participants effectively," the team wrote. "Almost all participants pointed out that their location was accessed by several apps they would have not expected to access their location."

To track the information, the researchers created a tool which logs and reports requests for access to user location information such as current and previous locations. When the application seeks permission to access the data, the research tool would inform users via an alert.

While many Android applications provide various ways of informing the user of locational tracking, such as the presence of a menu icon, the researchers argue that their tool demonstrates that many users do not properly notice or understand what the icons mean.

To prove their point, the Rutgers team offered results of a campus experiment which placed users with the tracking notification software against Android users without the tool. Results of the test, they say, showed that the users with the alert tool were better informed about application tracking behaviors and were more likely to understand how individual apps were handling their data.

That the additional tools are needed to properly understand what applications are doing is an indictment of the way Android handles locational tracking, say the researchers.

"Our work confirms the existing research literature that Android permissions are not an effective method for disclosing and consenting for location data access," the Rutgers team said of its findings.

"Our results showed that the existing location access disclosure mechanism on the Android platform, the flashing GPS icon, was not effective to inform users of apps’ location accesses. Nearly all participants in the two groups had some apps they did not expect to access their location."

The team hopes that the work will serve as an eye-opener to both users and developers about the need for better privacy management and reporting tools. They noted that in addition to better reporting of tracking access, users should be offered additional controls on when and how their mobile applications can access their locational data.

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