There’s no such thing as a free app

There has always been the age old mantra that ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’, perhaps that should now change to ‘there is no such thing as a free app’

Google is watching you
Emma Carr
On 6 March 2012 09:48

Do you own a smartphone, tablet or computer?  If yes then the chances are that you have downloaded free apps or use free services from the likes of Facebook, Google or itunes.  Have you ever stopped to wonder why these services are able to remain free? 

If you were walking down the street and someone offered you a free subscription to a magazine, a free beauty treatment or even a free lunch the chances are you would question the motives behind the generous offer.  Why then are people so quick to accept free services online?

We have become a generation of consumers who are used to online services, such as emailing, videos and social networking being offered to us for free with the expectation that we will be exposed to some advertising.   Over the last week the media has been awash with news relating to how these free services have been manipulating our personal information for advertising purposes.

Big Brother Watch highlighted the way in which some mobile phone apps have been gaining access to you text messages, phone calls, phone book, location and even have the ability to turn your camera on and off without your knowledge.  Granted, this information is buried within the terms and conditions that the consumer accepted when downloading the app, but how many of us would expect a simple game for your phone to require access to your messages or for a children’s picture game to be able to gain control of the camera? 

Big Brother Watch has also expressed concerns regarding the new Google privacy policy, which will amalgamate all of the information you have associated with your Google account into a single identifiable profile. 

A poll carried out by BBW and You Gov showed that nine out of ten adults had not read the new privacy policy despite 92 percent of adults using Google services on a regular basis (at least once a week).  The concern is that consumers were unaware that their private information was about to become a lot more valuable to Google and as such had no opportunity to decide whether they were comfortable with this. 

There of course is an opt-out, anonymising option associated with these changes but there was little clarity from Google as to how to do this.  Despite global concern from data protection regulators Google failed to respond in a matter that suggested they were concerned about the lack of consumer engagement with the policy changes. 

There were even questions regarding the legality of the changes from the French data protection regulator CNIL who, acting on behalf of the Article 29 Working Group, wrote to Google’s CEO Larry Page warning that they believed that the privacy policy could be in violation of the European Union’s data protection rules.

There have been measures within the physical world for decades that protect consumers meaning that everybody is aware of what their rights are when shopping on the high street; the same clarification needs to be made online. 

All too often there appears to be the attitude that online services can ignore directives on the ‘minimum collection of data’ and ‘privacy by design’ which should no longer be tolerated by consumers or the data protection regulators.  The practices are quite simply intrusive and unnecessary and, as such, consumers need protection from contracts that are either too intrusive or too unclear to understand.

The main concern for Big Brother Watch is that if people don’t understand what is happening to their personal information, how can they possibly make an informed choice about using a service? 

There is no question regarding the amazing innovation that companies like Google have brought to online services and I myself will remain an avid Google user.  However, it is my hope that the recent media attention will make people realise that their personal data is becoming the most valuable product of the twenty first century. 

There has always been the age old mantra that ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’, perhaps that should now change to ‘there is no such thing as a free app’.

Emma Carr is the Deputy Director of Big Brother Watch

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