Oxford Study Finds iPhones and Androids Compromise Privacy Equally
Published · Oct 15, 2021
An Oxford study revealed that iPhones and Androids are roughly on par when it comes to violating their users’ privacy. The study was undertaken in part because less is known about iOS, which has recently been promoting itself as a privacy-centric option.
The paper, entitled “Are iPhones Really Better for Privacy? Comparative Study of iOS and Android Apps”, involves analysis of 12,000 randomly selected free apps. The researchers looked at the code, permissions, and network traffic of the apps. All apps in the study had their last update in at least 2018.
The researchers found that 89% of Android and 79% of iOS apps contain one or more tracking libraries. Most often, the library is Google Play Services for Android and SKADNetwork for iOS, both of which track ad clicks.
62% of iOS apps run Google’s AdMob, with 54% also running Google’s Firebase. Facebook trackers were present in 28% of Android apps and 26% of iOS apps. In total, 90% of Android apps and 60% of iOS apps shared data with tracking companies owned by Google.
The paper notes that iOS apps share data with Google even though users wouldn’t have opted in. Android, on the other hand, is a Google platform, so users must opt-in to get access.
Potential Legal Violations
The study indicates that the majority of data collectors are based in the United States. Roughly 9% of iOS and 5% of Android ones use Chinese trackers. Additionally, 7.5% of iOS and 2% of Android apps use Indian trackers.
The researchers used apps from the UK app stores, while almost all of the tracking companies were based outside of Europe. This may indicate violations of the GDPR, which aims to protect privacy by limiting data transmission across borders. Alarmingly, many children’s apps give away location data—27% of iOS apps and 4% of Android apps, according to the study.
This type of information gathering differs drastically from accepted forms. For example, people search sites scrape data that’s publicly available. Background services differ depending on their focus, but the collection is legal. There are steps people can take against these services if they’re concerned.
This is not the case for apps secretly gathering data.
The type of tracking these apps perform is different. Its primary aim is to create profiles through which to refine targeted advertising. With roughly 1.6 billion Android users worldwide and over one billion iPhone users, there’s a lot of money to be made.
Google and Apple face pressures to do more to ensure privacy, but more privacy could mean less profit. Still, pushes by regulators and users are ongoing, and so the cybersecurity landscape shifts daily.
Garan is a writer interested in how tech reshapes the environment, and how the environment reshapes tech. You'll usually find him inoculating against future shock and arguing with bots.