Android and iPhone devices collect data that can compromise privacy, shows a report by the School of Computer Science & Statistics, Trinity College, Dublin. The study looks at the type of data each of the devices collects and the frequency with which they share it with their respective companies.
The foremost finding is that iPhones and Androids share data an average of every 4.5 minutes. The study also points out that while Android phones collect larger volumes, iPhones collect more types of information.
Researchers used a Google Pixel 2 running Android 10 and an iPhone 8 running iOS13.6.1 for the investigation. They ran data from the phones through a laptop to figure out the type of information and frequency of sharing.
The data collection begins when a handset is first switched on. This happens before users link their accounts and even if they opt-out of data collection.
As such, people have little control.
Privacy vs Practicality
In the “Threat Model” section of the paper (page 3), the researchers point out that data sharing is not always a privacy risk. In many cases, it serves a practical purpose. Moreover, data can be “anonymized” if it’s generic, i.e., a broad location like the user’s country.
However, problems arise if it is linked to a profile.
To fully utilize their smartphones, customers must sign in to their Google or Apple accounts. By design, the information is linked to a user profile.
The study contains 11 categories of data—from hardware serial numbers to the addresses of nearby devices. Apple gathers data from ten, and Android—from eight. Unlike Androids, iPhones collect location, as well as information about other devices on a WiFi network.
This last finding should trouble the privacy-conscious. The companies can use this data to create a “relationship map” and establish how the owners might know each other.
Another usage is triangulating the location of users. The frequency of sharing compounds this.
By way of comparison, consider the data used by background check services or people search sites. These companies update the information daily, weekly, or monthly. While this may seem frequent, it’s nothing compared to live updates of users’ location broadcast every few minutes.
The study concludes with a note on how to mitigate data sharing. The authors advise Android users to start their devices without an active connection and without logging into an account. iPhone users, however, aren’t as fortunate, as they need a connection to activate their phones.
While the information shouldn’t surprise anyone concerned about privacy, it is important to be aware of the details around data sharing.