How Smartphone Companies are Tracking Users

How Smartphone Companies are Tracking Users

A recent study from Deloitte has put into perspective the rapid growth that the smartphone industry will have in India. The study found that by 2026, the country will have 1 billion smartphone users. Last year, that number stood at 750 million. One of the primary driving factors behind this growth is the rural sector in the country. Other than that, the higher internet adoption and increasing demand for internet-enabled devices are expected to accelerate the growth of the Indian smartphone market. As of now, China’s Xiaomi is the market leader in the Indian smartphone industry followed by Samsung. Driven by its festive season sales, Apple’s iPhones is leading the premium segment. With the growing penetration of smartphones in the Indian market, the concerns regarding user data privacy is also increasing.   

By monitoring the activities of the users, smartphones can build a digital profile. This can even include intimate information regarding the user’s personal lives. At times, the collected data is traded between companies and what makes this even more terrifying is that, this collection usually happens without the user’s knowledge or consent. With smartphones and related technologies getting more sophisticated every year, user information can be collected by smartphones regardless of if they are being used or are running in the background. Some of the user information that usually gets monitored includes location, internet search history, and social media activity to name a few. During certain instances, even user’s biometric data including fingerprints and facial features are collected. Metadata can also be collected and a study conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has showed how email metadata can be used to map the user’s lives.  

Sensors and Apps

There are myriad of ways through which a smartphone can track the user. The first way is through sensors and smartphones have plethora of sensors built in it. Let’s look at some of these sensors.

a) Compass/Magnetometer: This sensor inside the smartphone can track user’s location. It uses the earth’s magnetic field to track the location.

b) Global Positioning System (GPS): By using signals from different satellites, the GPS can establish the user’s location.      

c) Gyroscope: This device is used to determine the way in which a phone is positioned in three-dimensional space.

Smartphone companies can use the data collected by these sensors in myriad of ways. Apart from sensors, applications installed in smartphones are another way through which smartphone companies can monitor user’s data. Very recently, Apple iPhones were found to collect a lot of user data. These smartphones were considered as a gold standard when it comes to protecting user privacy. A report from independent researchers states that the company collects detailed user information through its own apps. The data collection happens even if the users turn off tracking. Tommy Mysk and Talal Haj Bakry who are app developers and security researchers found that privacy settings had no obvious effect on the company’s data collection. These two studied the data collected from different iPhone apps including App Store, Apple Music, Apple TV, Books, and Stocks.

Targeted Advertising and Personalized Services

Smartphones collect a lot of user data in the name of offering improved user experience. That said, the data that is being collected like this can be used to infer personal information. This even includes the users background, political views, social connects and health. Data brokers who collect and combine data elements about users have already been making inferences on them. This can help companies to deliver targeted advertising as well as personalized services to the users. While at first, this might not seem as an issue, continued targeted advertising can go beyond in influencing one’s purchasing habits. Targeted advertising can even allow companies to discriminate against users. Apart from that, social media data can be used to calculate creditworthiness of the user. Factors including the sophistication in a user’s language on social media as well as their friends’ loan repayment histories can be used for this. Similar risks can happen in payment and shopping apps as well.  

Limiting User Tracking of Smartphones

While making smartphone companies to completely stop collecting user data is a tough task, there are certain things each user can do to ensure better data privacy. Let’s analyze some of those.

a) Tweaking the Location Settings: This is one of the most efficient methods to stop iOS and Android from tracking the user. Known as ‘Frequent Locations’, this feature keeps track of where the user has gone and how long have they stayed there. The default setting for this feature enables it to record the user’s daily routine. Through this, the feature can even identify where the user lives and works. The user can turn this feature off but its location depends on the smartphone one has.  

b) Limiting Ad Tracking: If a user doesn’t want to end location tracking, they can then deal with the actual ads themselves. iOS as well as Android offers options that are built-in to limit this. These tools in itself will not be a complete solution. But it will allow the user to reset their advertising ID.

c) Using a Private Browser: There are multiple private browsers which allow the users to search the internet anonymously on their smartphones. The Firefox Focus app from Mozilla is one example of this. This blocks advertising, analytics as well as social trackers by default. On top of that, this browser even erases passwords as well as browsing history after each session. Also, if you are a user that doesn’t want Google to record all your search terms, then there are other engines that you can use including Yippy, and DuckDuckGo. These two doesn’t track the user as aggressively as Google.  

While we dived deep into smartphones and user privacy, there are many other devices including your vehicle’s entertainment system, and fitness tracking devices among many others that can be used to collect user information. When it comes to smartphones, with the sophistication of user tracking technologies constantly increasing, users themselves will have to pay more attention and become more educated on how their data can be tracked by their smartphones in order to limit it.