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No, I'm not installing your app to order food.

Tracking is the new gold. Shops are following Google's example with their own tracking apps.

2020-06-09
The outcry was loud when politicians started talking about corona tracing apps: Where is the privacy protection? How do we make sure that our personal data does not get into the wrong hands? Now, that we are sensitized against app tracking, do you know which apps track your every move, your browsing behavior, your shopping activities?

While everyone is talking about corona tracking apps and Google's extensive tracking, it is worrisome that no one talks about the tracking methods of every other app.

App 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, 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, of course, 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 - 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.

Check for trackers

While all this sounds very scary, and somehow impossible to prevent, it is much easier to prevent this kind of tracking than you think.

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.

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.

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, which you can get on F-Droid. A similar app on iOS is Lockdown.

The fewer, the better

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.

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.

And, should you ask yourself if the Tutanota app comes with any trackers, just check the app on Exodus Privacy.

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