Public trust in our mobile apps is wavering, with 91% of mobile apps exposing personal information

[1]. Yet apps are becoming harder to ignore, part of their addictive nature stemming from their variety:  from the app which helps you hug a stranger, to the ‘Firechat’ app facilitating student pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, there really is an app for everyone. It is no wonder people are submerged into the forefront features of apps, as opposed to the terms and conditions lying behind them.

Fake apps are being developed at an alarming rate: ‘Cheetah Mobile Threat Lab’ detected 15,000 fake social networking apps between January and August this year[2]. However, it is the legitimate apps that users should be wary of. Recent scandals include personal data being compromised by the ‘Whisper’ app. The Whisper app, which allows people to share their intimate secrets anonymously. However, it was found to be tracking the location of all its users to within 500m. By implication, staff could gain personal information from the app. Last month, The Sunday Times revealed apps which secretly record phone location, personal details and even text message conversations. This data is then sold to market research and advertising companies to track users’ shopping habits. Are we compromising our privacy for a perceived value of “free”?

Minimal security features on legitimate apps are of concern. In January this year, Snapchat was hacked, compromising the names and telephone numbers of 4.6 million users. A hacker claimed the purpose was to inform Snapchat that “security matters as much as user experience does.[3]” Snapchat has since launched a new feature ‘Snapcash’, allowing users to send money to others; brazen confidence?

So how can you become more security conscious when dealing with apps? Here are some tips:

  • Ensure that the apps are purchased from trusted sites such as ‘Google Play’ and ‘Apple Store’;
  • Fake social apps thrive on a quick download time, so they will contain much smaller total MB than the real app would. Therefore, as a very approximate rule of thumb, make sure your downloaded app is at least 20MB through to about 300MB. Fake apps may be as small as 1MB;
  • Consult online guides to social media for clarification on exactly what their app involves. For example, ‘The Parents Guide to Snapchat’ covers questions about the safety of the app;
  • Make sure the apps’ geolocation services are turned off, through the settings on your device.

Perhaps most crucially of all, do take care to read the app’s terms and conditions to see what it wishes to access on your device. If this then sparks questions as to why the app needs to access certain areas, for example, your address book, you may want to prioritise the potential security threat to your privacy over your user experience.