Android privacy: how to see if an app is tracking you and what data it collects

Android privacy: how to see if an app is tracking you and what data it collects
Chances are most apps that you have downloaded on your phone collect and use your personal information. Sometimes that’s necessary for the app to work. Even if that’s not the case, many apps collect your personal information for analytical purposes. Developers use the data to improve their apps, as well as to ensure that they work as intended.

But some apps could be collecting your personal information for other purposes, such as creating an advertising profile that third-party companies can buy and use to display ads that may be more relevant to you. Apple has the so-called "Privacy Nutrition Labels," which enable you to see what personal data apps collect about you. Also, if you don't want an app to track you on an Apple device, you may block your data from being collected.

In the Android realm, though, we currently don't have such tools to control the data that apps collect from us. Something meant to address the issue is the recently announced Google Play Store "Data Safety" section, which, like Apple's app privacy details, requires developers to explain how their apps collect, share, and secure users' data. However, because the information must be filled in by the app creators, there is a very small chance that some developers may find a loophole in this requirement and enter incorrect data.

The truth is that yes, you can delete your Advertising ID on an Android phone, and yes, you have some control on iOS, but you can't fully stop an app from tracking you. So, let's look at some good practices on how to identify suspicious apps and protect your personal information on Android.

Check and manage app permissions

App permissions play a pivotal role in protecting your privacy. You can use them to control what parts of the phone and system your apps have access to.

Also, if you check what permissions an app requires, you may be able to better tell if it can be trusted or not. For example, if a calculator app requests permission to use your phone's camera for no apparent reason, it may not be as harmless as you thought.

You can view what permissions an app currently has and needs on your phone, but you will better protect your data if you check what permissions an app will demand before downloading it.

To see what permissions an app will use, go to the page of the app in the Google Play Store, then tap on "About this app," and in the "Permissions" section, tap on "View details." The Google Play Store will open a window listing all the permissions the app will need.

Managing permissions isn't enough

However, even if an app looks safe, there’s another way it can collect at least some of your data. Almost every app has built-in trackers, used for collecting and sending your personal information. Some of these are harmless. Others - maybe not so much.

What are the trackers in mobile apps?

Almost every app has built-in trackers, which are pieces of code designed to collect your personal data for various purposes. They are normally provided by companies as an SDK (Software Development Kit), which is a collection of tools designed to make application development easier.

Some trackers like Google’s Firebase Analytics and CrashLytics give developers statistics, and crash reports and help them improve their apps. There are also trackers used to bombard you with ads. Trackers could also be used for profiling and identification, meaning collecting as much information as possible to make up a digital profile of you and to link you specifically with your online and offline activities.

A good example that shows how versatile and powerful trackers can be is FidZup. This tracker makes your phone pick up an inaudible to the human ear tone diffused from emitters placed in establishments or retail stores. This way, FidZup learns your exact location and can track you while you are shopping. The tracker also enables these establishments or stores to send you promotions. As a report about the tracker says, "The consumer then receives relevant content at the right place and at the best time on his smartphone."

But how do you see how many and what kind of built-in trackers an app has?

Before we continue, you should know that no service or app, designed to discover built-in trackers, is 100% accurate. So it's always better to double-check given information with another app or service.

See how many trackers an app has with Exodus Privacy

Exodus Privacy "analyzes privacy concerns in Android applications." The service scans the codes of the free apps uploaded to the Google Play Store and lists all the trackers and permissions it finds in them. Unfortunately, the service only analyzes free apps, so you won't be able to find or receive a report for a paid app with this service.

With Exodus Privacy, you can search for a recent report for an app before downloading it and see what permissions the app in question will want to use and what built-in trackers it has. The web service even showcases other apps with the same trackers and provides links to the official websites of the trackers.

How to analyze an app with Exodus Privacy

Exodus Privacy is very easy to use. To analyze an app with Exodus Privacy, go to the Exodus Privacy website, tap the "Check an app" button, and then type the name of the app you want to analyze into the search bar. You can also copy and paste the link to the app from the Google Play Store into Exodus Privacy's search field.

If there isn't a report for a free app that you want to download, you can start an analysis yourself. All you need to do is click on the button "Perform a new analysis," copy and paste the app's URL, and tap on "Perform Analysis."

Analyzing an app with Exodus Privacy

For demonstration purposes, let's see what Exodus Privacy has to say about Asphalt 9, a game that I have logged many hours into.

When we search for Asphalt 9 in Exodus Privacy's search bar, we discover that the popular game has 34 built-in trackers and will request 14 permissions from us. As we can see, many of these 34 trackers are for analytical purposes or advertising. But if we aren't sure about a specific tracker, we can always google it or go to the official website of the tracker and see if it is safe or not.

How to use TrackerControl

To use TrackerControl, you need to download it from the Google Play Store, where you will find the slim version, or in other words, the analytical version of the app.

Because it functions similarly to a VPN service, you will be prompted to enable Android's VPN option when you first run the app. TrackerControl establishes a local VPN server and starts to analyze, locally on your phone, the apps that you run, except for browsers.

When TrackerControl finds trackers, it will distribute them in the tracker sections inside the TrackerControl app. The app also displays the countries to which the active applications transfer your personal data.

TrackerControl can also block the built-in trackers, but in order to do that, you will need the full version of the app, which is also free, and you can find it on TrackerControl's official website.

With the full version, you can choose which trackers you want to block, but you should know that first, no app can offer 100% protection against tracking and that by blocking trackers, you may prevent some apps from working correctly.
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