This may feel like preaching to the choir to you if you’re reading this and you’re savvy about how “free” smartphone apps work. Yet for the majority of people the cost of “free” apps is usually a distant thought in the back of their minds. They might even consider it an acceptable tradeoff, but people should know what they’re handing over in lieu of money.
Facebook just recommended a work associate to me as a friend. We’ve never interacted on Facebook and have no mutual connections, nor as far as I know do we have any significant common interests other than geographically living in the same vague, general vicinity. Creepy, right?
If I had to guess, it’s because the permissions you gave Facebook’s app allows it to rifle through your contacts, where it likely matches those contacts with Facebook profiles that have those phone numbers and recommends them based on your text message interactions.
I already wrote about why from a business standpoint prioritizing a mobile app over a website is a bad idea. It’s not much of a better idea for consumers. As a free app it’s an open secret that mobile apps allow companies to mine your phone for personal data to sell to advertisers who in turn sell you ads, but it gets sticky when you consider compliance and privacy issues.
Even something as simple as your flashlight can access your contacts, read your calendar and track your location, and sometimes you have no choice in the matter. The FTC settled with a major flashlight app back in 2013 over the app maker sharing user data, even though users explicitly opted to not do this.
Even if you think this is a tempest in a teacup, you’ll notice the effect on your phone. Most apps have the exact same functionality as mobile websites except that apps eat up memory, disk space and CPU. That split second delay you get when swiping between screens on your phone or the protracted loading time when you reboot your phone is likely a result of your mobile apps taking up memory.
This isn’t to say that this is the case with all apps. Dedicated apps that have specific functions like games, car sharing, or mobile content management systems would be impractical to recreate in mobile browsers, and I’ll even concede that there are some business apps that actually do provide convenience to the end user first and foremost. If there’s going to be a tradeoff and you’re going to fork over your data to advertisers make sure you’re getting something out it.
So remember what you’re giving apps access to when you install them. Especially free ones. If you’re a business owner still tickled at the prospect of getting “your own app,” keep in mind that even if it’s a free one most smartphone users download a grand total of zero apps per month. Ask if it’s worth the time and money.