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How to protect your privacy from iTunes apps

 | Updated
by Staff Writer

Woman using smartphone with icon graphic cyber security network of connected devices and personal data information

This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.

One of the benefits of having a smartphone is having access to thousands of applications right at your fingertips. Cell phones are used just as frequently for surfing the Internet, playing games, and being productive as they are for talking. The iTunes app store offers many apps at no cost.

Given the complexities behind developing apps, you may wonder how programmers can spend many hours creating and updating an app and then release it to the public for free. Those free apps may not cost you your hard-earned cash, but they do come at the cost of your electronic privacy.

In December 2010 Apple Inc. was sued in two separate class action suits because certain apps in the iTunes store were said to be violating privacy laws. Many of Apple’s most popular apps, including Pandora, textPlus4, and The Weather Network, have been named in the lawsuits under the accusation that they transmit personal information to advertising networks.

Although many are concerned about privacy protection on social networking sites, you may never have thought about your smartphone sharing your personal data. In this article, you’ll learn how Apple iTunes apps can leak your personal information and how how to protect your privacy from iTunes apps.

Protect your digital privacy when using iTunes

In much the same way that we each have a personal address for our homes, each Apple product you purchase has a code embedded in it. This code, called a Unique Device Identifier (UDID), is a string of letters or numbers 40 characters long. You can find your UDID when synching your Apple product on your computer by opening iTunes and selecting your device. Click “Summary,” and your UDID will be listed. Your UDID can’t be blocked or removed, so you have no way to ensure privacy protection when using your device.

Has your personal information been exposed online? Remove my information

If you’ve ever installed free apps from the app store, you may have unknowingly violated your digital privacy by sending your UDID to advertisers. Your UDID on its own isn’t very revelatory as far as your personal data is concerned, but many Apple apps have been accused of transmitting extra personal information such as zip codes, phone numbers, birthdates, and personal preferences along with the UDID.

Your personal data is valuable to advertising networks

You may wonder why anyone would be interested in what type of sandwich you like, which movies made you cry or if you choose to bank online. When you’re presented with ads in an app, marketing companies want to be sure they’re relevant to you and available in your current location. Although you’re just one person out of thousands who download apps in the iTunes store, when your personal data is compiled with users who have similar interests, big companies sit up and take notice.

Although it’s against Apple’s policies, more and more app developers are turning to data mining to generate revenue. Data mining is a booming business, and large companies buy your personal information from app developers in order to formulate their marketing plans and target specific ads to you within your network of apps. Check out this article that details how mobile applications can affect your digital privacy.

Protection of privacy also means safeguarding your iTunes account from hackers. In January 2011, thousands of stolen iTunes accounts were for sale on a Chinese auction site that’s similar to eBay. These accounts, linked to stolen credit cards, held the personal information of legitimate iTunes users and were being sold in bulk. Given that the Mac Store has opened up an app store for your laptops and desktop computers, it’s more important than ever to protect your personal information when using iTunes.

Limit the transmission of your personal data

There are two ways to limit the transmission of your personal information. At this time you cannot block your UDID from transmitting to the apps you download, but you can limit the amount of personal information sent out by doing the following:

  • Turn off location services.
  • Avoid free apps in the iTunes store.

When you’re using an app for the first time, you’re often asked to allow the app to track your location. If the app is like foursquare or another tracking service that requires your location, then you may wish to give it access.

Apps such as We Rule or other online games shouldn’t require your location data for any reason other than their own personal information. For greater privacy protection, click “deny” when asked if the app can use your location.

Ready to protect your identity & secure your private information? Protect my identity

There are thousands of free apps online. The iTunes store has categories of the top free apps for iPhones and iPads, and the page is constantly updated with the most popular ones. If you’re focused on protecting your Internet privacy, avoid downloading free apps from the iTunes store. If you feel you must download a free app, then you should check the developer’s website prior to installing the app. Many app developers don’t have a privacy policy in place on their website, but if they do you can at least feel confident that they’re focused on privacy controls.

With our heavy reliance on cell phones and the Internet, protecting privacy will consume a lot of your time. Smartphones are here to stay, and with technology evolving at such a rapid rate, it’s safe to say that the price we put on our digital privacy is evolving as well. Be diligent and make sure you know how to protect your privacy from iTunes apps.

Shelly Wutke is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, BC. Shelly has been published in Vancouver-based Love Magazine, in local newspapers, and on various websites.