Ever heard the term Big Brother is watching? What you are about to read regarding your smart phone and specific apps may alarm you.
We use apps constantly without thinking twice about what information or knowledge they may be gathering about us. But do you know that some smartphone apps are used to track our every move? Thanks to tiny pieces of code that millions of developers use to make their lives easier, an array of companies gets free access to data they can employ to understand your habits.
When we browse the web through Google Chrome, for example, vast arrays of companies follow us. That’s why the ads that appear on the right side of your browser are usually related to searches you have recently conducted.
On your smartphone, tracking is generally performed through the use of a “software development kit” or SDK—a set of tools that help developers debug their code or hook into useful services. But other SDKs help advertisers and marketing companies peer into your private life. Take the iHeartRadio app for example: Last fall, Medium reported that it contained code from Cuebiq’s SDK, which would permit user data to be sold for the purposes of ad tracking.
Apple just recently launched a “privacy matters” campaign, which is ironic because it doesn’t protect users from trackers embedded in apps that are distributed through the iOS App Store. SDKs also allow Facebook and Google to track users beyond their desktop web browsers and automatically collect information like when you installed the app, each time you opened it, and what you purchased.
Tracking in SDKs is clearly part of the modern App Store era and there are tons of companies you’ve never heard of invisibly tracking your habits in apps you use every day. Networks like Vungle, Apps Flyer, and Applovin all call themselves “advertising and analytics” platforms. They help developers monetize their apps, and all of them track data to sell to other partners behind the scenes as well.
In the past, Apple has moved to make it more difficult to identify you by blocking access to unique identifiers and your phone number, but it’s still trivial to correlate an identity via your IP address, the name of a Wi-Fi network, or just matching together the bread crumbs of data they grab about you. Android allows even broader access to identifiers—not surprising, given that it’s built by a company that relies on advertising to make money.
There’s frustratingly little we can do to combat SDK tracking without intervention from Apple and Google. They should provide operating system controls that show the parties harvesting data inside the apps on our devices or should require third parties to reveal this information. A good example of this in practice can be found in the Guardianapp, which allows users to disable tracking on a per-SDK basis in its settings. Requiring this should be standard for all developers.
Let’s look at another example…more intrusive, but surprisingly popular among women.
Ovia, a pregnancy-tracking app, allows users to record private and intimate details of their entire pregnancy journey including bodily functions, sex drive, medications, mood, ovulation cycle, and more.
Ovia pitches its app to companies as a health-care aid for women to better understand their bodies during a mystifying phase of life. In marketing materials, it says women who have tracked themselves with Ovia showed a 30% reduction in premature births, a 30% increase in natural conception and a higher rate of identifying the signs of postpartum depression. Women wanting to get pregnant are told they can rely on Ovia’s “fertility algorithms,” which analyze their menstrual data and suggest good times to try to conceive, potentially saving money on infertility treatments. “An average of 33 hours of productivity are lost for every round of treatment,” an Ovia marketing document says.
Employers who pay the apps’ developer, Ovia Health, can offer their workers a special version of the apps that relays their health data — in an anonymous form — to an internal employer website accessible by human resources personnel. The companies offer it alongside other health benefits and incentivize workers to input as much about their bodies as they can, saying the data can help the companies minimize health-care spending, discover medical problems and better plan for the months ahead.
But some health and privacy advocates say this new generation of “menstrual surveillance” tools is pushing the limits of what women will share about one of the most sensitive moments of their lives. The apps, they say, are designed to benefit the employers and insurers and experts worry that companies could use the data to bump up the cost or scale back the coverage of health-care benefits, or that women’s intimate information could be exposed in data breaches or security risks.
“The real benefit of self-tracking is always to the company,” says Karen Levy, a Cornell University assistant professor who has researched family and workplace monitoring. “People are being asked to do this at a time when they’re incredibly vulnerable and may not have any sense where that data is being passed.”
For employers who fund workers’ health insurance, pregnancy can be one of the biggest and most unpredictable health-care expenses. In 2014, AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong defended the company’s cuts to retirement benefits by blaming the high medical expenses that arose from two employees giving birth to “distressed babies.”
“The fact that women’s pregnancies are being tracked that closely by employers is very disturbing,” said Deborah C. Peel, a psychiatrist and founder of the Texas nonprofit Patient Privacy Rights. “There’s so much discrimination against mothers and families in the workplace, and they can’t trust their employer to have their best interests at heart.”
Federal law forbids companies from discriminating against pregnant women and mandates that pregnancy-related health-care expenses be covered in the same way as other medical conditions. Ovia said the data helps employers provide “better benefits, health coverage and support.” Pregnant women can log details of their sleep, diet, mood and weight, while women who are trying to conceive can record when they had sex, how they’re feeling and the look and color of their cervical fluid.
After birth, the app asks for the baby’s name, sex and weight; who performed the delivery and where; the birth type, such as vaginal or an unplanned C-section; how long labor lasted; whether it included an epidural; and the details of any complications, such as whether there was a breech or postpartum hemorrhage.
The app also allows women to report whether they had a miscarriage or pregnancy loss, including the date and “type of loss,” such as whether the baby was stillborn. “After reporting a miscarriage, you will have the option to both reset your account and, when you’re ready, to start a new pregnancy,” the app says. “We’re their companion throughout this process and want to … provide them with support throughout their entire journey,” Ovia spokeswoman Sarah Coppersmith said.
Much of this information is viewable only by the worker. But the company can access a vast range of aggregated data about its employees, including their average age, number of children and current trimester; the average time it took them to get pregnant; the percentage who had high-risk pregnancies, conceived after a stretch of infertility, had C-sections or gave birth prematurely; and the new moms’ return-to-work timing.
Ovia data is viewable by the company, their insurers and, in the case of Activision Blizzard and other self-insured companies, the third-party administrators that process women’s medical claims. Ezzard, the benefits executive at Activision Blizzard, said offering pregnancy programs such as Ovia helps the company stand out in a competitive industry and keep skilled women in the workforce coming back. The company employs roughly 5,000 artists, developers and other workers in the United States. “I want them to have a healthy baby because it’s great for our business experience,” Ezzard said. “Rather than having a baby who’s in the neonatal ICU, where she’s not able to focus much on work.”
“As a clinician researcher, I can see the benefit of analyzing large data sets,” said Paula M. Castaño, an obstetrician-gynecologist and associate professor at Columbia University who has studied menstrual-tracking apps. But a lot of the Ovia data given to employers, she said, raises concerns “with their lack of general clinical applicability and focus on variables that affect time out of work and insurance utilization.”
Ovia says its “fertility algorithms,” which analyze a woman’s data and suggest when she would have the best chance of getting pregnant, have helped 5 million women conceive. But the claim is impossible to prove: Research into similar promises from other apps has suggested there were other possible explanations, including the fact that the women were motivated enough to use a period-tracking app in the first place.