Data Slupring Gluttons: Guess Who, Please?

October 19, 2021

Apple’s iOS enjoys a reputation of being more respectful of users’ privacy than Google’s Android. However, announces Tom’s Guide, “New Study Reveals iPhones Aren’t as Private as You Think.” The recent paper was published by Trinity College’s School of Computer Science & Statistics. Unlike the many studies that have covered what kind of data apps collect, this research focusses on data reaped by core operating systems.

The researchers found Android does collect a higher volume of data, but iPhones collect more types of information. This includes data about other devices that could allow Apple to make a relationship graph of all devices in a local network, whether a home, office, or public space like a café. Creepy. Not only that, both operating systems collect telemetry and other data even when users explicitly opt out. Much of this collection happens when the phone is powered up. The rest occurs the whole time the device is on, even when sitting idle. Writer Paul Wegenseil specifies:

“Both the iPhone and Android phone called home to Apple and Google servers every 4 or 5 minutes while the phones were left idle and unused for several days. The phones were powered on and plugged in, but the users had not yet logged into Apple or Google accounts. Even when the iPhone user stayed logged out of their Apple account, the iPhone still sent identifying cookies to iCloud, Siri, the iTunes Store and Apple’s analytics servers while the iPhone was idle. It also sent information about nearby devices sharing the same Wi-Fi network. When location services were enabled on the iPhone, its latitude and longitude were transmitted to Apple servers. On Android, data is sent to Google Play servers every 10 to 20 minutes even when the user is not logged in. Certain Google apps also send data, including Chrome, Docs, Messaging, Search and YouTube, although only YouTube sends unique device identifiers. Even when the iPhone user stayed logged out of their Apple account, the iPhone still sent identifying cookies to iCloud, Siri, the iTunes Store and Apple’s analytics servers while the iPhone was idle. It also sent information about nearby devices sharing the same Wi-Fi network.”

Unfortunately, researchers concluded, there is not much one can do to prevent this data from being harvested. The best Android users can do is to start their phone with network connections disabled. The study found disabling Google Play Services and the Google Play and YouTube apps before connecting to a network prevented the vast majority of data sharing. But then, users would have to visit other app stores to download apps, each of which has its own privacy issues. Apple users do not even have that option, as their device must connect to a network to activate.

See the article for a summary of the researchers’ process. They reached out to both companies for comment. Google responded by comparing its data collection to the statistics modern vehicles send back to manufacturers—they just want to make sure everything is working properly. Apple’s spokesperson quibbled with the researchers findings and insisted users’ personal data was safe and could not be traced to individuals. I suppose we will just have to take their word for it.

Cynthia Murrell October 19, 2021

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