Flashlight App Tracks Your Location

The element of surprise causes hard feelings when it comes to privacy violations, and mobile phone apps are ambushing consumers far too often, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.

Researchers at the school's Human-Computer Interaction Institute studied both the data gathered by the 100 most popular programs in Google's Android app store, and how surprised users were when told what the apps were doing.  On Tuesday they released a list of the 10 worst offenders in terms of transparency.

Almost no one was surprised that Google Maps accessed location information, for example, but respondents had a strong negative reaction when they learned that the "Brightest Flashlight" app tracked their location, said Jason Hong, an associate professor at school.

"There's no sensible reason why a flashlight app would need your location," Hong said. "That was the biggest surprise to people -- 95 percent were surprised it used location data."

Of the top 100 Android apps, 56 collected location information, device identifiers and/or contact lists, according to the university's research. Users, however, often had no idea such data was being collected or how it might be used. For example, 58 percent of those asked about an app that collected device IDs were unaware that they could be used for marketing purposes; another 55 percent said the same about GPS location data.  

It turns out that data collection and surprise is a toxic combination for users. 

Using both elements, Hong and Professor Norman Sadeh created a list of the 10 worst privacy offenders - apps that collected data and surprised users. The list wasn't ranked, though Hong said the flashlight app registered the most surprise. 

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