It’s already been established that your smartphone is probably sharing an alarming amount of personal information with various third party sites. So well established, that we seem to more or less brush it off, assuming that this data sharing is just a necessary evil. As it turns out, it’s not. According to new research from MIT, “much of the data transferred to and from the 500 most popular free applications for Google Android mobile phones makes little or no difference to the user’s experience.” That’s right; that data that’s being handed around willy nilly (often unbeknownst to you) often serves little to no purpose.
Noting that half of the data communicated between applications and third parties “cannot be attributed to analytics,” experts say that the main issue at hand is that users are kept largely in the dark about what their personal information is used for. “There might be a very good reason for this covert communication,” said Julia Rubin, a postdoc in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), who led the recent study. “We are not trying to say that it has to be eliminated. We’re just saying the user needs to be informed.”
In conducting their study, the MIT team examined 500 of the most popular apps on the Google Play store, and found that of the top 20, 62.7 percent of the data communication could be considered “covert” (or superfluous). And when these communications were completely shut down, there was “no major impact on the apps’ performance.”
So why have these channels open in the first place? Omer Tripp, the technical lead on mobile security and privacy at IBM’s T. J. Watson Research Center, has some ideas of his own, namely that this data sharing is proactively guarding against potential network outages.
“You may imagine that the application may want to be more resilient and go on functioning without reporting a problem,” he said. “Which, when you think about it, is an interesting opportunity for optimization.” If the user has no Internet connectivity, which can occur when abroad, or is limited by data, anything that keeping important apps running smoothly is a good thing.
So don’t be too upset about all this covert communication. But you may want to start asking a few more questions about what’s going on behind the scenes.