As a consumer, you buy a new Android cellphone. It could be any brand, but it is likely to be an Android as they account for more than 80% of today’s cellphone market. You open the box, press the “On” button and the phone connects to the internet. Without further ado, you have just triggered the most sophisticated surveillance machine to date for monitoring your routines.
It no longer matters whether you have downloaded Facebook or activated a Google account, or given permission to some app or anti-virus program to access your contacts, camera and microphone. Whatever you do from that moment on, your new cellphone will be sharing details of your activity with the rest of the world. The software that comes pre-installed is the most accurate resource on your phone for predicting where you might be, what you might download, what messages you might send and what music you might listen to.
“The pre-installed apps are an indication of another reality: agreements between actors (manufacturers, data traders, mobile operators and advertisers) for added value, but also for commercial ends,” says Juan Tapiador, a professor at Carlos III University in Madrid and co-author of the study on this alarming situation, along with Narseo Vallina-Rodríguez from IMDEA Networks and the International Computer Science Institute at Berkeley University.
While none of the findings are in themselves earth-shattering – we already know, for example, that cellphones walk a fine line when it comes to compiling and sharing data – what they do reveal is the extent of pre-installed apps’ reach, their lack of transparency, and their privileged position within the devices. Researchers analyzed 1,742 phones made by 214 manufacturers in 130 countries.
“Until now, research on the risks to privacy from cellphones has been focused on apps that are listed on Google Play or malware,” says Vallina. Instead, he and Tapiador analyzed the pre-installed apps on standard cellphones and it turns out that, due to a complex ecosystem of manufacturers, mobile operators, app developers and service providers, the guarantees offered by Android are looking less than foolproof.
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