At this point, you should assume your smart phone is a tracking device – albeit one you pay for, which you can buy a nice case for.
The Register reports on a study in which researchers analyzed the amount of traffic going to/from an “idle” Android smartphone. [dc] [reg] I doubt highly that Apple is any better; they’re just able to be more secretive about what’s going on because their system is more proprietary.
40 request per hour is close enough to “constant” – they’re tracking your location and what you’re doing, down to the minute. How far can you walk or run in that amount of time? Note: that is an inactive phone. As soon as you start doing anything with your phone, then all the servers you’re talking to (for whatever reason) have loads of other things they can infer about you. Who needs spyware? If you’re doing minimal activity (defined by the researchers, loosely, as “moving around and not doing much) it jumps to 1.5 requests per minute.
As you probably are expecting, this is mostly adsense traffic. Because it is oh-so-important that all important content be delivered to your receptive eyeballs. Apple makes its money selling overpriced hardware, so they don’t have to work as hard to “monetize” their user base. But don’t worry – if the Apple gravy train ever shows a sign of slowing down, that’s going to be one of the first things that they reach for.
If you ever wondered why battery life is so short, now you know.
If that’s Android with the default settings (fresh install, and press OK for everything when it asks), it’ll probably have Google Assistant turned on, and that needs Google servers to know your location. Even without Assistant, Maps and Pay will send location data if you use the suggested defaults, so they can give you useful* notifications like “McDonalds accept Google Pay, so you can pay with your phone!” and “Photos of McDonalds are popular on Google Maps. Would you like to upload a photo of this place?”
I’m too lazy to actually read the paper and learn what settings they used.
Post Snowden, Apple poured resources into tightening privacy. And even fought the FBI at great economic cost and risk about it.
Diluting some aspects of that, Apple later [Feb 2018 Schneier] allowed China to have access to some security keys for China-based users .
For the moment, Apple tells everyone not only that it doesn’t want to monetise your personal details, but also that it takes steps to prevent itself from monetising your personal details. By extension, they’re also trying to prevent Intelligence outfits from harvesting you without a warrant. For the moment, this adds up to a fair bit of assurance that if Apple were lying, enough of its employees would also have no compunction to blow the whistle on Apple.
When Don’t-Be-Evil Google is found to have designed its systems to harvest everyone’s data all the time and not take any meaningful steps to keep it pseudo-anonymous from either Google, or the spooks, and barely pseudo-anonymous from the advertisers and Cambridge Analytica, the Google employees collectively shrug their shoulders: “That’s how it works.”
 Everyone agrees it’s bad to kow-tow to China, but it’s not bad to follow US law and allow FBI and NSA to serve National Security Letters. [obvious sarcasm appended]
Reginald Selkirk says
I have an Android phone and a finite data plan (currently 250 MB per month) so this matters to me. I turned off everything I could figure out how to turn off, and it was still leaking data prodigiously. So now I keep the cell data turned off, which diminishes the usefulness of having a smart phone.
I remember one occasion when Google introduced a new option to leak data, and made it ‘on’ by default.
Tabby Lavalamp says
But don’t you want to be marketed at with ads tailored to your specific interests?
(That companies keep asking this means that there are people who reply yes, and I whisper another prayer for the asteroid to strike us soon.)
Ieva Skrebele says
My mobile network operator charges a lot for mobile data usage. Well, to put it more precisely—I intentionally chose a tariff plan that makes mobile data ridiculously expensive to use. I had no intention to ever use mobile data, so that was fine with me. I purchased my very first smartphone only three years ago. Up until then I was using an antique mobile phone. After buying my first smartphone, I immediately selected “turn off mobile data” in its settings. I assumed that my phone isn’t using mobile data and happily lived for about two months. Until I got a phone bill that said I have to pay € 50 for mobile data usage. Whoops! It turned out that my smarphone had been using mobile data for all this time despite me telling it not to do so. Thank you Samsung, how kind of you! If you simply pick “turn off mobile data” in my phone’s settings, it will use a bit of mobile data anyway for some unknown purposes. However, if you dig really deeply in my phone’s settings, you can also find another place where you can select “really don’t use mobile data at all, never ever.” After selecting that one, my phone really didn’t use mobile data at all (otherwise my mobile network operator would have charged me for it). I’m absolutely certain that my phone is selling me out each time I allow it to connect to some Wi-Fi network, though.
This got me thinking also about e-ink devices. If I spend several hours looking at an LCD screen, my eyes start hurting. However, if I spend several hours looking at an e-ink screen, my eyes are just fine. Thus I’m dependent upon devices with e-ink screens (and, no, I have never owned an Amazon Kindle, devices made by other less known brands are better than Kindle).
For years I have wanted to buy a large screen e-ink tablet. For a moment I considered purchasing Sony Digital Paper DPT-RP1. It’s an e-ink device with a 13.3 inch screen that weighs only 12.3 oz. Hell, yeah, I was so salivating over it. Until I learned about the nasty things that Sony is doing. In order to transfer files from a computer to the e-reader, the user is forced to use Sony’s desktop app. It’s impossible to just directly copy the files by using the Windows File Explorer (or any other file manager software). And, on top of that, Sony has also written a pretty nasty EULA, in which they give themselves permission to mine unspecified data not just from the e-reader itself, but also from any devices connected to the e-reader (like a computer). Of course, they also gave themselves permission to share all this data with unspecified third parties. Cool, huh? For $700 you can pay for the privilege of letting Sony mine data from your computer (probably though their desktop app which users are obliged to install).
By the way, reMarkable Paper Tablet has the same problem—it forces you to use its desktop app in order to transfer files to the device. You cannot just directly copy files from your computer’s hard drive to e-reader’s internal storage.
And here I’m not even talking about some of the worst offenders. Some brands selling e-readers are even worse—they force their users to use their clouds (small amount of available storage on the e-reader + no MicroSD slot + free cloud), they show them advertisements directly on the e-readers themselves, and they also collect data about their customers reading/browsing/purchasing habits.
In most cases I have no way of knowing what some company is doing with my data. Often I cannot even know whether they are collecting any of it at all. Yet I have come to the point where I’m absolutely cynical and always expect the worst. If some company attempts to make me use their cloud, I get very suspicious of them. If they force me to install their app, then I’m assuming that they are evil, and they want to steal my data and sell me out to whoever is willing to pay them a little money. As of now I’m using an e-reader made by a Chinese brand which offers no desktop or smartphone apps, no cloud storage, no website where I must register my device, no user accounts, no DRM, no other frills. . . Which is amazing. I’m pretty certain there’s no way how the device manufacturer could get their hands on any of my data (I’m not connecting my e-reader to the Internet).
By the way, I hate all the file manager apps that everybody is trying to force upon me for one more reason. Even if the company that made the app don’t use it to steal any data from me, I still wouldn’t like to use a different app for each one of my devices. I’m perfectly happy with Windows File Explorer and Funduc Directory Toolkit, and I don’t need anything else. It is plain inconvenient to use a different file manager app for every one of my devices. If some proprietary app works only for a single device, I won’t even consider it worth using—I want to use one and the same app for every single device that I connect to my computer. An app that works for a single device only is junk.
Anyway, this whole problem makes me uncomfortable about the day when not only our phones and computers, but also all our other devices will be selling us out to the advertisers. Cars, scales, ovens, wristwatches, anything could be used to gather personal data that somebody might be willing to collect and sell.
Ieva Skrebele says
Tabby Lavalamp @#4
I never click on anything that looks like personalized advertisements (even in those rare cases when Google gets it right, and I’m actually interested in the stuff that’s being advertised). I might be unable to prevent companies from collecting my data, but they won’t earn a single penny from having it. And even if they successfully earn money by selling my data itself to some third party, whoever purchased my data won’t get any value from their purchase.
I’m a late adopter on smartphones (or mobile phones) as well on account of my burning hatred of ringing phones, phonecalls and frankly, live conversations of any kind (poor reception being a bonus). Just e-mail me and I’ll get back to you in five minutes or maybe weeks.
My phone is an old Samsung S4, doesn’t get mobile data* and, as I just recently discovered, does have a much shorter battery life when wifi is enabled. I assumed it was just idiotic programming with my phone yelling, “Hello, who are you?! I’m a smartphone!!”, a million times a second to every network in range. But given how little control I get to have over my phone (computer, …) these days I can’t rule out evil plots by marketeers looking to plunder my wallet. But going by my smartphone activity I’m constantly plugged into a wallsocket and don’t leave my home (or even my commode) for weeks on end, so their success may be limited.
*Evidently much more primitive than Ieva’s phone since turning mobile data off actually worked straight away
Re: Ieva Skrebele
Oh, no! I simply couldn’t live without DRM. Who will randomly block my access to my purchased content because I lost my internet connection for a splitsecond…? [/sarcasm]
Of course there’s always a fourth party willing to spend some cash on your data. They probably know someone who might like to buy it from them. The “big data” stuff is most likely doomed to devolve into a sort of stock exchange for data, where the price tags grow without any actual value being generated. I look forward to the first financial meltdown triggered by someone’s sudden realisation that they just wasted millions on worthless data about the browsing habits of the western hemisphere. And in the meantime a lot of people will get a lot of spam…
Curt Sampson says
@Tabby, no: it means that there are enough people who don’t reply “no,” at least not loudly enough (e.g., by refusing to use the phone).
I doubt we’ll get to privacy laws that can properly clamp down on this kind of stuff before we reach a Rainbow’s End (Vernor Vinge) world where everybody’s automatically selling their own personal street surveillance to make a bit on the side (or enough of us that if some choose not to, it doesn’t matter).
Ieva Skrebele says
My mobile phone is Samsung Galaxy S4. I don’t perceive it as old, though. After all, human perception of “old” is relative. Before buying my current phone, I was using an over 10 years old phone model. My current phone model is only 5 years old. That’s “new” by my standards.
After buying my phone, I did the following:
Apps > Settings > Data usage > disable the check box next to “Mobile data.”
Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough. I still needed to do this one too:
Apps > Settings > More networks > Mobile networks > disable the check box next to “Mobile data.”
A few months after buying my smartphone, I realized that my mobile network operator was charging me for mobile data usage. I checked my phone’s settings, and my phone informed me that the amount of mobile data used was 0 KB. I called my mobile network operator’s customer service and asked them why I’m paying for mobile data usage if I don’t use any. They informed me that each day my phone was using a minuscule amount of mobile data. So little that the phone itself didn’t even bother to count it or inform me about the fact that it was using mobile data after all. My tariff plan is such that even if I use a single byte of mobile data each day, I still have to pay about € 30 for mobile data usage per month. If I use any mobile data at all (even a tiny amount), I’m billed about one euro and afterwards I can use more mobile data for the next 24 hours with no extra charge. Since my phone was using a tiny amount of mobile data each day, I ended up paying a lot of money for mobile data usage.
In order to type this comment, I had to take a look at my phone’s settings. After all, it’s not like I have memorized where to disable mobile data usage. While checking my phone’s mobile data settings, I accidentally enabled mobile data usage. I disabled it immediately afterwards. I had mobile data usage enabled for less than five seconds. Guess what happened! During those couple of seconds my phone used 69.49KB of mobile data! Here’s a list of apps that used mobile data: Google Play Store, Google Play Services, Linguee (a dictionary app), and Android OS. The catch? I had my mobile phone connected to a Wi-Fi network at the same time. Which idiot programmer decided that apps should use mobile data even while the phone is connected to a Wi-Fi network? In general Wi-Fi is cheaper than mobile data. It would make sense to tell apps not to use any mobile data while the phone is connected to a Wi-Fi network. It would make sense, but, apparently, programmers who write apps don’t think about whether some decision makes any sense.
Oh, and yes, today I accidentally made the mistake of enabling mobile data usage for less than 5 seconds. Some apps decided to utilize the opportunity, which means that my phone bill just increased by about one euro. Whenever this kind of crap happens, I actually start considering ditching my smartphone and instead getting one of those 15+ years old mobile phones. Those cannot do anything else besides making phone calls and sending text messages. Thus they cannot do anything too annoying without the user’s consent.
Tracking and monitoring the innocent is disgusting and unethical. I am considering using only older bar cellphones (sans tracking devices) for making calls, and using a smart phone as an unconnected computer. I often go out without my phone to simply get away from it.
On the other hand, if criminals are stupid enough to carry their phones and provide a data trail, it should be usable as evidence – but ONLY with valid court orders to collect it, not massive vacuuming by out of control governments.
Re: Ieva Skrebele (#9):
I just checked my settings and the “deeper” mobile data setting was disabled. I don’t remember if I actually found and switched it off when I first got the phone but I’ve never had mobile data issues as horrible as the ones you describe.*
Instead of monthly fees I have one of those contracts where I top up my balance for reasonably cheap calls. I don’t get any bandwidth though, so if I do want to use mobile data I pay ~3 Euros for a pretty restrictive day-flatrate. Given my (non-)usage this works for me and if my phone did try to abuse the net I’d find out pretty quickly as my (usually small) balance disappeared.
But my oh-so-well-behaved phone is constantly updating itself by wireless. This has now gone so far that I had to upgrade the phone’s memory, which has been eaten up by a bunch bundled applications I can’t uninstall because they’re “crtical” to the system. Apparently even basic tools e.g. for viewing images came as a generic version, a google version and a Samsung version and are always being updated, implying that they’re all broken on some level. And that, of course, is just the tip of the bloatberg.
In summary, while my phone isn’t actively trying to rob me blind it’s still wasting my time, doing its own thing without asking (or telling) and monitoring everything I do. And while it’s doing all that it has yet to make a convincing case why I actually need it for more than maybe a few hours each year.
Dealing with moderrn devices I very much miss the old days when computers actually listened to me (even as I ran them into the ground) and “bundled software”essentially meant solitaire, minesweeper and a calculator.
*It really does use WIFI when able: at one point I forgot to switch off mobile data for a few days after using it and did not end up penniless. I was suprised myself.
Ieva Skrebele says
Yeah, I have all the same problems you described. Except that I don’t care about storage though. I have a 128GB MicroSD card inside my phone, so whatever. (I mostly use the extra memory for storing offline maps. Instead of Google Maps, I use an app called MAPS.ME, and it allows me to store as many offline maps as I wish, I have most of Europe stored on the MicroSD card.)
I understand why companies selling smartphones put all the bloatware on their devices. It makes sense for them to do so. The fact that they put bloatware on the devices I use doesn’t bother me that much. What really pisses me off is the fact that I’m forbidden from uninstalling all that crap (at least not without rooting the phone).