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Mobile Ad Networks Accused Of Invasive Apps


Some findings now about the invasive nature of some apps for your mobile phone. The first meeting to work out some of the substance for the White House's supposed Privacy Bill of Rights is taking place today in Washington. The focus of this meeting is transparency in mobile advertising. NPR's Steve Henn reports that not all mobile ad networks are being upfront about what they're doing with personal information.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Sitting by a pool at a hotel in Sonoma, California, Kevin Mahaffey is fiddling with his smartphone. He's downloading a free app.

KEVIN MAHAFFEY: I'm downloading an app called Nail Polish and, you know, ruining my Google demographic profile in the process.

HENN: Kevin's not really that interested in finding the trendiest shade for his next pedicure. Kevin is chief technology officer at Lookout, a mobile security company. He's downloading Nail Polish because he suspects this free Android app uses some pretty aggressive advertising techniques to make money. And as we're talking, a small message flashes across the bottom of Kevin's screen.

MAHAFFEY: I barely saw it out the corner of my eye. Now, I have a new icon on my screen that says Top Offers.

HENN: Right next to the apps Kevin has actually downloaded for himself, like Fandango, this new app has appeared, an app Kevin never asked for and didn't want. It's called Top Offers. Turns out, one of the ad networks built into that Nail Polish app added Top Offers to Kevin's home screen without even asking. And that's not the only thing it did.

MAHAFFEY: For example, I have last minute deals that just appeared in my notification bar.

HENN: Right next to his voice mail notifications and text messages. Most consumers hate this stuff.

MAHAFFEY: They say where is this coming from? It's not clear that this Nail Polish app that I just downloaded just did this.

HENN: But it did. That seemingly innocuous Nail Polish app is actually bombarding Kevin's phone with spammy ads, links and icons.

MAHAFFEY: It's not a small problem.

HENN: Lookout has found apps that change the settings on mobile phones, browsers and some that even record consumers' phone numbers and email addresses and then send them to third parties. Lookout believes that one out of every 20 free apps for Android phones use techniques like this, and millions of people have downloaded apps that work this way.

MAHAFFEY: The minimum is approximately 80 million downloads on the Android market and it could be up into the hundreds of millions.

HENN: And while some of this stuff is just annoying or obnoxious, Parker Higgins at the Electronic Frontier Foundation says some of these apps are really invasive.

PARKER HIGGINS: Right. There's this spaminess. There's, you know, the pop-ups on the phone that you don't know where they come from - that's a bad business practice. But it's not the same as harvesting your data. And, you know, some of these companies are doing both.

HENN: Higgins says advertisers to gain access to our mobile phones are in a position to collect a tremendous amount of information about us.

HIGGINS: There's a group of researchers who found that with a trail of your GPS data and some of your friends' GPS data they can predict within 20 meters where you will be in 24 hours in the future.

HENN: Parker and Higgins believes that when people realize just how mobile data can be used, it's going to spur calls for new regulations. But Lookout's not waiting for regulators to intervene. It's already building programs that screen mobile phones for spammy ads and apps that invade consumers' privacy. So, regulators in the U.S. and Europe may not wait for the industry to fix itself. And in fact none of the mobile ad networks I reached out to for this story would defend the kinds of aggressive advertising practices Lookout found. Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.


MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.