Are you being snooped of your personal information?

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By Prashant Vadgaonkar (TECHTRONIKS)

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Published: Sat 29 Mar 2014, 11:39 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 10:18 PM

The recent expose from NSA Contractor Edward Snowden surely blew the lid of the US Administrations’ claims relating to privacy of personal information. Indeed, it is now an open secret that a bevy of intelligence agencies which includes the US National Security Agency (NSA) are “cooperating” — rather colluding — to pull out personal information from mobile apps and other websites. The data pertaining to location, address books etc are routinely captured from various sites and apps and are used in the global fight against terror. As a part of the surveillance activities, data from smartphone apps downloaded by users, is used as one of the data elements used routinely by intelligence agencies. The mobile versions of apps such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter are supposed to be credible data sources which give access to address books, friends lists and locational data from maps. Even popular games such as Angry Birds are being leveraged for surveillance by the NSA and British GCHQ clandestinely.

Generally, as users of smartphones, we normally are not at all mindful of the various app permissions and how they affect us, right? We tend to install the apps and are thereafter oblivious of the consequences. Is there no way that all this prying and snooping upon be controlled at a users’ level? Well, now researchers have a solution for this — Android users can now be forewarned if and when apps are tracking their locations!

A new app has been devised which will alert the user when an Android smartphone app is tracking their location. To be able to do so, normally, one has to tweak the core operating system on the handheld device by a process called Rooting. Android rooting is a process of allowing users of tablets, smartphones, and other devices running the Android mobile operating system to gain special privileges and control over the Android sub-system and is known as “root access”.

The Rooting function is typically preformed with the intention of addressing hardware and carrier limitations put on some devices and results in the ability to run specialised apps that need administrator privileges or perform other operations normally not available to end users. Apple on the other hand empowers iPhone users to enable or disable location tracking for specific apps. The newly devised app publishes a conspicuous banner across the top of the screen which informs the user that data is being accessed with a message “Your location is accessed by ”. The current set of Androids includes a small icon which is displayed when location information is being accessed by any app — however, a normal user seldom notices the same!

Janne Lindqvist, an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University and team has designed the app. A prototype of the app was handed it over to a bunch of Android users and received rave responses with respondents showed surprise and awe at the frequency and number of apps which were accessing their locations in real time.

The research paper from the Rutgers team hopes that apps like the one developed by them will inspire app developers to capture less data and give the end consumers more freedom and provide transparency about the amount and type of data gathered.

The app is expected to be available to Android users on Google Play within the next two months.

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