Personal Data Surveillance of Smartphone Users Through Apps Is Overlooked: Cybersecurity Adviser

by EditorL

Collecting personal information from internet users through social media apps in order to promote certain products to those users or influence their voting for a presidential candidate gets overlooked, said Rex Lee cybersecurity and privacy adviser.

Mobile apps such as Facebook or Twitter apps can be used to collect personal data including “emails, email attachments, photos, and instant messages,” Lee said in a recent interview on Epoch Times’ Crossroads program.

However, a lot of people are unaware of the fact that even if the user is not on the social media platform these apps can still explore and gather their personal data, Lee added.

“Most of the information collected on the end-user has nothing to do with the end users use of the app or platform,” Lee said, moreover “the apps are programmed to take control over” the camera and microphone of the phone, as well as all phone’s sensors such as GPS or near field communications chip which allows the user to make payments with a smartphone.

Therefore tech companies “can conduct audio, video, and physical surveillance on the end-user 24 by seven 365 days here, while collecting the end-users sensitive user data through the app itself,” Lee said, adding that even if a user deletes their Facebook or Twitter account but do not deactivate the app on the phone, that app is still running and can surveil and collect sensitive data.

Government agencies such Federal Trade Commission (FTC) need to enforce existing consumer protection and privacy laws as well as child protection and privacy laws, Lee said.

On October 28, Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.) unveiled legislation that would require big tech companies to adhere to the “First Amendment standard for their content moderation practices.” The bill would limit the immunity the companies have when they restrict speech or censor certain content, allowing for more accountability.

Lawmakers should focus not only on the social media platforms operating as publishers and censoring information but also on how much personal information has been collected by these platforms in order to suggest the user buying a certain product or voting for a certain presidential candidate, Lee said.

Consumer Privacy Rights Are Not Protected

Tech companies can collect person’s data utilizing their subscriber account data with Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, or TickTock when the person is on their platform, Lee said, however, personal data is collected mostly when the user is off the platform.

It is possible to mine data off the platform because the terms of use of Facebook or Twitter platforms are separated from the terms of use of their apps, Lee said.

“These apps and platforms are supported by two sets of terms of use, one is published, and then one is unpublished, and hidden in the device.”

Legal statements associated with permissions to grant apps access to the camera, microphone, and other phone features are “hidden in the device and not published online within your online privacy policies, terms and conditions, and end-user licensing agreements,” Lee said. He provided examples of such permission statements for Android devices. These permissions apply to all apps on an Android device, Lee said.

Epoch Times Photo
Sample permission statements on Android phones (Crossroads screenshot)

Lee also pointed out that “the apps are intentionally developed to be addictive, even at the expense of the end-user safety” and this was publically admitted by Sean Parker, co-founder of Facebook, and Tristan Harris, a former lead product designer for Google.

Parker told Axios in an interview in November 2017, “the thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them … was all about: How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”

“I don’t know if I really understood the consequences of what I was saying, because [of] the unintended consequences of a network when it grows to a billion or 2 billion people … it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other … it probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” Parker said.

Harris wrote in 2016 in his article for Observer, “The average person checks their phone 150 times a day. … One major reason why is the #1 psychological ingredient in slot machines: intermittent variable rewards … [a]ddictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable.”

Joshua Philipp contributed to this report.

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