Who’s Tracking Me?

For my final project I wanted to see if I could get a better idea of what information I was unknowingly giving out from my smart phone. I looked at all my apps that were loaded. Some of the apps came preloaded; some were put on when I bought this phone or perhaps a prior phone. Since then, apps have made their way to my phone after careful consideration and sometimes hasty negligence. I looked at them all and picked 26 that I thought might be suspect. I wanted to see how these apps handled privacy.

I thought it would be easy to look at the apps on my phone and find what they were tracking. Turns out the app companies don’t make that information easily available on the app itself. The information is readily available on the App Store. The privacy information on the App description in the App Store is separated into three categories: Data Used to Track You, Data Linked to You, and Data Not Linked to You. I decided for my final project I would concentrate on the first two types. I wasn’t really interested in information not linked to me.

I wanted to do a visualization of the information using an analog method as the class did earlier in the year. Because I am a Studio Art Major I thought I would do a watercolor painting using icons. The App Store had already designated icons for the information they collected so I used those icons. This simple idea became much more complex in the execution. There was much more information to connect than I had planned on. But in completing my “Artwork” I learned interesting information. Some of the results were as expected. But other results have shown me what apps need to be deleted. Not surprisingly the apps I downloaded using hasty negligence are the ones that are tracking me the most.

After my research, the next step was to draw and watercolor my App Icons.

Then I added them to a big peice of watercolor paper and drew the information icons.

Then came the data! Lots of data. At first glance it is unintelligable, but I was just mapping it out before I added the color.

Adding color helped discern what lines belonged to each App. But still an extreme amount of information.

The information that was the most concerning was the lines going to the icons on the left. Those lines indicate data that is used to track me. I expected that the social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat would be tracking me, and they are. I was very surprised that Subway was tracking me as much as they were. That was an app that I downloaded quickly because I had to place a big order to feed our movers and that was my only option. I didn’t consider the privacy implications. Walmart was also tracking me more than I realized. I downloaded that App during quarantine to order groceries. Again, I did not have the time to think of the implications. Another app that really surprised me was the Realtor app. Especially when Zillow which is a very similar app does not track me at all and collects far less information that is linked to me.

Another thing that I realized looking at the data was that there are apps that do virtually the same thing that link far less data to me. Apple Maps does not link any data to me while Google maps link 11 types of data to me. Apple weather doesn’t track me or link any data to me while Weather Bug tracks four types of data and links seven types of data to me.

I was happy to see that the apps that I downloaded for classes this semester do not use data to track me and only link four or five types of data to me. I assume that that information is necessary for the apps to function properly. I do see several apps that track information that they don’t need to function. I wonder why Amazon, Walmart and Weather Bug needs to track my health!

The apps I plan on deleting are Realtor, WeatherBug, Subway, and Google Maps. I can easily replace them with apps that collect much less information. I will have to evaluate Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook. Another app that is suspect is Target. It does not track me, but it does link quite a lot of data to me. And to get their Circle App deals you need the app. I need to consider if giving me sale prices is worth giving them my information. I will also delete Walmart. They track and link much more information than could possibly be necessary.

This has been a timely exercise for me. I will certainly be paring down the apps on my phone to the ones I exclusively need. And I will look for replacement apps if there are other options that gather less information. But like many other people I will make a deal with the devil to keep Apps such as Amazon, Pinterest, and Facebook. The functionality will trump the aggravation over invasion of my privacy.

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