What is app tracking?
App tracking is the practice of collecting and analyzing data about a user's behavior within a mobile or web app.
While this definition sounds rather innocent, the bad part comes after the tracking has been done: The collected data is often used for targeted advertising or other forms of marketing. This manipulative advertising makes free apps very profitable and that's why they continue to flourish.
An Oxford University study of about 1 million free Android apps showed in 2018 that the majority of mobile apps contain trackers from companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and Microsoft - even if the app has nothing to do with these Big Tech companies.
The abstract of the study reads a follows:
Third party tracking allows companies to identify users and track their behaviour across multiple digital services. This paper presents an empirical study of the prevalence of third-party trackers on 959,000 apps from the US and UK Google Play stores. We find that most apps contain third party tracking, and the distribution of trackers is long-tailed with several highly dominant trackers accounting for a large portion of the coverage. The extent of tracking also differs between categories of apps; in particular, news apps and apps targeted at children appear to be amongst the worst in terms of the number of third party trackers associated with them. Third party tracking is also revealed to be a highly trans-national phenomenon, with many trackers operating in jurisdictions outside the EU. Based on these findings, we draw out some significant legal compliance challenges facing the tracking industry.
Results of the study "Third Party Tracking in the Mobile Ecosystem": Worst at tracking are Alphabet (=Google), Facebook, Twitter, Verizon, Microsoft and Amazon.
This table shows how bad app tracking really is: Google (here: Alphabet) - the giant when it comes to tracking and profile-based advertisements - gets data from 88% of apps via different types of utilities for ads, traffic analytics and more. That's how the tech giant can track you even if you do not use Google apps.
We must start to understand that free apps are not free: They track you, accumulate your data, create a profile on you, and sell all this info to the highest bidder to place targeted ads.
App tracking mania
Today we've got apps for everything:
- order take-out
- pay for parking
- check your local weather
- order at your local pharmacy
- open your front door
- manage the heating at home
- unlock your hotel room
- check-in to your flights
- check local news
One could call it an app mania. Whatever you used to do online or offline, you can now do it via an app. Shops and businesses usually also offer discounts for first usage of the app. But why is that? Why do these companies want to push you into using their apps?
Little tracking machines
These apps have ToS and privacy statements, which you should read carefully. Of course, no one does. Why, after all, would you read this complicated long text just to order food? Well, you should because some track your location data, some your browsing habits, your shopping habits. These insights help their internal marketing teams to better re-target you as their customer. They will know what offers work, what kind of advertisements you click and purchase from.
Some apps even collect this data for marketing companies, who then sell the data to anyone able and willing to pay. It looks like by now, every little shop, every business has copied Google's and Facebook's business model of surveillance capitalism.
Google and Facebook are free BECAUSE they are the leaders in location-based advertising. Both companies collect users' data from their own apps. Google and Facebook don't sell this data, but the targeted advertisements.
How to manage app authorizations
Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, TikTok - these apps always know where you are. This data is collected and saved in the background, whether you use the app at the moment or not. Other apps access your contacts or your camera. By simply clicking 'allow access' upon app installation, the app can at any time access your contacts or camera or whatever else you agreed to.
How to stop app tracking
While all this sounds very scary, and somehow impossible to prevent, it is much easier to prevent this app tracking than you think.
1. Check for trackers with Exodus Privacy
Exodus Privacy is a great website that lets you check if the apps you use come with active trackers. With this knowledge, you can decide if you really need this app, or if it is dispensable.
2. Revoke access on Android under Settings - Apps
On Android, you can also easily manage app authorizations. Go to Settings and apps and click on the app names, for which you want to revoke or limit access.
3. Revoke access on iOS under Settings - Privacy & Security - Tracking
The list shows the apps that have requested your consent for tracking. You can withdraw or grant your consent for each app in the list at any time.
If you want to prevent apps from requesting your tracking consent, uncheck the "Allow apps to request tracking" option (at the top of the screen).
4. Use apps that block tracking
Additionally, you can use blockers. On Android, a good blocking app is Bouncers. This app blocks access to location data, the phone camera, stored contacts, and more. You can temporarily allow access for certain apps in case you absolutely need this feature. Once you close the app in question, access will be removed automatically again. Another good app is Blokada. A similar app on iOS is Lockdown.
5. Uninstall apps you do not use
When it comes to apps, the main rule is: The fewer, the better. First, it saves you storage on your phone. Second, it gives you the freedom not having to worry about potential trackers that want to exploit your data.
6. Block tracking on the web
App tracking is not the only way that companies track you. The same happens when you access the web via a browser.
Use privacy-first browsers like Firefox or Brave to stop tracking about what you search, click and type.
You can also add tracking blocking tools like Privacy Badger or Ghostery to browser the web privately.
Change your habits now
If not convinced, yet, this New York Times article on how app tracking affects you is a must-read: "The mobile location industry began as a way to customize apps and target ads for nearby businesses, but it has morphed into a data collection and analysis machine."
So when it comes to apps, remember: The fewer, the better.
Or as one Tutanota user put it: "No, I'm not installing your app to order food."
Uncovering the apps that respect your privacy
Fortunately, as more and more people stop believing Big Tech promises and start to understand that 'Free is not free' on the internet, the number of privacy-friendly alternatives is growing quickly.
When you start looking for alternatives, you can always check if the app you'd like to install contains any trackers on Exodus Privacy. Another great option if you are using Android is to get all apps from F-Droid instead of Google Play. This alternative play store checks all apps for trackers, and, for instance, does not allow any apps that use third party tracking by Google.
And, should you ask yourself if the Tutanota app comes with any trackers, just check the app on Exodus Privacy. We are certain you will like the results!
We also recommend that you check our privacy guide as it helps you to reclaim your data and your privacy online.