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Dear cool apps: Why are you spying on my phone calls?

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Guest post by Michelle Langlois

I got a new smartphone seven months ago, and it's a pretty handy little gadget. I'll never get lost again since I have a map that can pinpoint my location down to whether I'm in the front or back of my house. I downloaded a banking app that lets me check my balance, pay bills, and transfer funds whenever I want to do it. And, of course, I can tweet, foursquare, play Frozen Bubble, and watch YouTube any time I like.

So why did I just uninstall almost half of the apps I had on my phone? Because, while I know that any smartphone is not secure, and while I realize there's no such thing as real privacy, I discovered that many of the apps I had on my phone fall way short of even the relatively low expectations I have for privacy. 

Now when I download an app, I check to see whether it wants to "Read phone state and identity." If it does, I don't download it. Know what that means? Here's the explanation my Android phone gives me for that permission:

Allows the application to access the phone features of the device. An application with this permission can determine the phone number and serial number of this phone, whether a call is active, the number that call is connected to and the like.

So let's just look at that for a moment. For some reason, the companies that make the following apps seem to think that they need to know my cell phone number, when I'm on the phone, and WHO I'M ON THE PHONE WITH:

  • Scotiabank
  • Canada Post
  • Groupon
  • Skype
  • Shoot Bubble Deluxe (video game)
  • Shazam ("listens" to song playing and tells you what it is)
  • Ringdroid (records your voice and turns into ring tone)

I have now uninstalled all of these programs. There is no reason why a video game needs to know who I'm talking to on the phone. Certainly Canada Post doesn't need to know in order to tell me where their locations are or to help me look up a postal code. Does Scotiabank really need to know the phone number of the person I'm talking to or how long I'm on the phone with them in order to help me transfer funds from one account to another?

I get why many apps want GPS info - they want to know where you are so that features in the app that tell you what's near you now can work. Yes, it's a privacy issue too, but one I can live with if it actually makes the app work. But none of them - and I mean NONE of them - need to know who I'm on the phone with.

Here are some apps still left on my phone that don't ask for your phone call information:

  • Foursquare
  • Twitter
  • TripAdvisor
  • GO Mobile
  • Frozen Bubble (by a free software developer - doesn't ask for ANY permissions!)
  • Gmail

Unfortunately, I can't uninstall all the programs that spy on my phone calls, because a number of them come installed by the phone's manufacturer and won't let me uninstall them. (I'm sure there's some way to get around it, but I haven't the time or inclination to find out - which I'm sure these corporations are counting on.) These programs have absolutely no business spying on my phone in order to perform the functions of the app:

  • Facebook
  • Flickr
  • Google Maps
  • YouTube
  • Kobo

I'll be looking carefully from now on whenever I'm considering downloading an app, to make sure it doesn't demand more privacy permissions than it needs in order to perform its functions.

This post was simultaneously posted at http://classrage.ca.

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