Private International shares its findings on how popular Android apps send user data to Facebook without user consent

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Privacy International, a UK registered charity firm that promotes the right to privacy, released a report last week, that shows how popular Android apps (Qibla Connect, Period Tracker Clue, Indeed, My talking tom, etc) share user data with Facebook, despite not having a Facebook account. The report raises questions about transparency and use of important app data by Facebook.

As per the report, Facebook uses Facebook Business tools to routinely track users, non-users and logged-out users outside its platform. App developers use Facebook software development Kit (SDK) to share data with Facebook. To track these data sharing practices, Privacy International used “mitmproxy” (interactive HTTPS proxy), a free and open source software tool to analyze the data sent to Facebook via 34 apps on Android. All of these apps were put to test between August and December 2018. The latest re-test was done between 3rd and 11th of December 2018.

Findings from the analysis

  • The report states that at least 61% of tested apps transferred data to Facebook the moment a user opened the app. It doesn’t matter whether a person has a Facebook account or not, or whether they are logged into Facebook or not.
  • Privacy International found out that the data that gets transmitted first is “events data”. This kind of data tells Facebook that the Facebook SDK is initialized by transmitting data like “App installed” and “SDK Initialized”. This data gives information that a specific app is being used by a user, every single time that user opens an app.
  • It was found that apps that automatically transfer the data to Facebook share this data together with a unique identifier i.e. the Google advertising ID (AAID). These advertising IDs enable advertisers to link data about user behavior from different apps into a “comprehensive profile”, i.e. a clear and intimate picture of a person’s activities, interests, behaviors, and routines. This comprehensive profile can also reveal information about a person’s health or religion.
  • The analysis also revealed that event data such as “App installed”, “SDK Initialized” and “Deactivate app” offer a detailed insight into the behavior of users and the apps that they use.
  • Moreover, the report also revealed that some of the apps send data to Facebook that is highly detailed and sometimes sensitive. This data is often related to people who are either logged out of Facebook and even those with no Facebook account.
  • The report states that Facebook’s Cookies Policy describes two ways where people with no Facebook account can control Facebook’s use of cookies to show them ads. Privacy International analyzed both the ways and found out that it didn’t have much impact on the data sharing process.

The report also mentions that the default implementation of the Facebook SDK automatically transmits event data to Facebook due to which many developers have filed bug reports, over the concerns that Facebook SDK shares user data without consent. After May 25th, 2018, when GDPR came into force, Facebook came out with a voluntary feature that enables developers to delay collecting logged events until they acquire user consent.

Facebook responded to the report in an email saying that “Prior to our introduction of the ‘delay’ option, developers had the ability to disable transmission of automatic event logging data, except for a signal that the SDK had been initialized. Following the June change to our SDK, we also removed the signal that the SDK was initialized for developers that disabled automatic event logging.”

However, Private International mentions that before this voluntary feature was released, many apps that used Facebook SDK in the Android ecosystem could not prevent or delay the SDK from automatically collecting and sharing that the SDK has been initialized. This data, in turn, informs Facebook about a user using a particular app, when they use it and for how long.

“Without any further transparency from Facebook, it is impossible to know for certain, how the data that we have described in this report is being used. Our findings also raise a number of legal questions”, says Private International.

For more information, check out the official Private International report.

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Natasha Mathur
Tech writer at the Packt Hub. Dreamer, book nerd, lover of scented candles, karaoke, and Gilmore Girls.

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