Gauge your app-titude

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Today, tech-savvy entrepreneurs use mobile apps to build buzz, save money, and stay in touch on the go.  But how can you make sure all those apps you buy protect your privacy, keep your data secure, and wind up costing you exactly the advertised price?  OnGuardOnline, the federal government’s online safety and security site, has some questions to consider before you click DOWNLOAD.

What kind of data can apps access?  When you sign up with an app store or download individual apps, it probably asks for your permission to access information on your device.  Some apps may be able to access your phone and email contacts, call logs, internet data, calendar data, data about the device’s location, the device’s unique IDs, and information about how you use the app itself.  Some apps access only the data they need to function, but others access data that’s not related to the purpose of the app.  If you’re providing information when you’re using the device, someone may be collecting it.  And if they’re collecting your data, it’s likely they’re sharing it with other companies.

How can I tell what information an app will access or share? That’s not always easy to figure out.  Before you download an app, consider what you know about who created it and what it does.  The app store may give you more information.  If you’re using an Android operating system, for example, you’ll have a chance to read the “permissions” just before you install an app.  Do it.  It’ll tell you what information the app will access on your device.  Ask yourself whether the permissions make sense given the purpose of the app.  For example, there’s no reason for an e-book to read your text messages.  If you’ve done your research and still don’t have a clear picture of what the app accesses, ask yourself if it’s really worth putting the sensitive data on your smartphone at risk.

Why do some apps collect location data?  Some apps use it to give you maps, coupons, or information about who you might know nearby.  Some provide location data to ad networks, which may combine it with other information in their databases to target ads based on your interests and location.  Once an app has your permission to access your location data, it can do so until you change the settings on your phone.  If you don’t want to share your location with ad networks, you can turn off location services in your phone’s settings.  But if you do that, apps won’t be able to give you information based on your location unless you type it in yourself.  Your phone uses general data about its location so your phone carrier can efficiently route calls.  Even if you turn off location services in your phone’s settings, it may not be possible to completely stop it from broadcasting location data.

Should I update my apps?  Your phone may indicate when updates are available.  It’s a good idea to update the apps you’ve installed on your device — and the device’s operating system — when new versions are available.  Updates often have security patches that protect your information and your device from the latest malware.  App updates also may include additional features.

Could an app infect my phone with malware?  Some hackers have created apps that can infect phones and mobile devices with malware.  If your phone sends email or text messages you didn’t write or installs apps you didn’t download, it could be infected with malware.  If that’s the diagnosis, you have a few options.  You can contact customer support for the company that made it.  You can contact your mobile phone carrier for help.  Or you can install a security app to scan and remove apps if it detects malware.  Security apps for phones are relatively new.  There are only a few on the market, including some with free versions.

What should I tell my staff about apps?  Share Understanding Mobile Apps: Questions & Answers from OnGuardOnline.


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