Brightest Flashlight Free is a very popular Android app that turns a smartphone into a flashlight. It’s quite useful and has been downloaded tens of millions of times. But its users didn’t know the app was tracking their locations via GPS and sharing the data with advertising networks.
The app maker, Goldenshores Technology, was busted for that egregious trespass, and the Federal Trade Commission ordered the company to cut it out. Goldenshores will presumably comply, but the incident raises a long-standing concern. What Goldenshores was doing is all too common: Customer tracking by GPS is used as advertiser bait by unprincipled app developers.
The conventional wisdom about tracking is that users should read the privacy policies that come with apps they download. Honestly, I’m concerned about privacy, but plowing through EULAs (end user license agreements) is tedious. Most of us hardly ever do it.
Even if users of the flashlight had bothered to read that agreement, it wouldn’t have mattered. Goldenshores simply lied about it, saying data was only going to be used internally by the developer, the FTC said.
“Upon first opening the app, they were shown the company’s End User License Agreement, which included information on data collection. At the bottom of the license agreement, consumers could click to ‘Accept’ or ‘Refuse’ the terms of the agreement. Even before a consumer had a chance to accept those terms, though, the application was already collecting and sending information to third parties – including location and the unique device identifier.”
(The developer agreed to settle with the FTC, so it essentially admitted the wrongdoing.)
Given the proliferation of mobile devices that are in constant contact with cell phone towers and GPS satellites that pinpoint our locations, tracking is a very serious issue. In a December 2012 report on kids’ privacy, the FTC found that 60 percent of the child-oriented apps it looked at shared location information, device IDs and phone numbers with third parties but didn’t adequately disclose those practices.
Meanwhile, Apple and other companies are beginning to launch services that track your location within buildings or stores. (Apple calls the service iBeacon, and launched in on Friday for use in its stores.) When you’re in a big retail store, these apps can tell you where the merchandise you’re looking for is located. That could be handy but advertisers would love to know what you’re buying and even what aisles you lingered in.
iPhone users can go to their Settings, then Privacy and Location Services to see a list of apps that have access to location data. If you don’t want the app following you around, you can simply turn it off. Of course, the app may not work without GPS, but that’s your choice.
iBeacon won’t work unless you’ve downloaded it as an app and given Apple permission to track you. But I’d think twice before you do; I’m just not sure the extra convenience while you shop is worth the risk of publicizing your location.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.