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Google and Facebook can take big data from apps, Oxford study finds



Sundar Pichai
Google CEO Sundar


  • A study of just under a million apps by Oxford
    University researchers found that big tech companies can hoover
    up enormous amounts of data from third-party apps.
  • The study found that just under 90% of the apps
    analysed could send data to companies owned by Google’s parent
    company Alphabet.
  • News apps and those aimed at children were found to be
    particularly tracker-heavy.
  • Google disputed the methodology used by the Oxford

Companies like Google and Facebook can hoover up vast quantities
of data from third-party apps on people’s smartphones, according to a detailed new study by the University of

Researchers analysed the code of 959,000 apps on the US and UK
Google Play stores. It revealed how huge numbers of them are set
up to transfer data to big tech companies.

The study found that 88% of apps could ultimately hand over data
to Alphabet, Google’s parent company. This put Google top of the
list of potential beneficiaries of third-party app data. Here’s
how others stack up:

  1. Alphabet: 88.44%
  2. Facebook: 42.55%
  3. Twitter: 33.88%
  4. Verizon: 26.27%
  5. Microsoft: 22.75%
  6. Amazon: 17.91%

Information that could be shared via third-party apps could
include things like age, gender, and location, according to The Financial Times, which first
spotted the Oxford research.

The researchers said this sort of data “enables construction of
detailed profiles about individuals, which could include
inferences about shopping habits, socio-economic class or likely
political opinions.”

They added: “These profiles can then be used for a variety of
purposes, from targeted advertising to credit scoring and
targeted political campaign messages.”

The study said the median app could transfer data to five tracker
companies, which could then ultimately pass the data along to
firms like Google. Certain app genres were more
tracking-intensive than others.

“In particular, news apps and apps targeted at children appear to
be amongst the worst in terms of the number of third-party
trackers associated with them,” the paper said.

Apps targeted at children throw up some particularly thorny legal
issues around data tracking, which the paper makes clear in its
conclusion. “Some of the practices likely to be involved — such
as allowing profiling of children without attempting to obtain
parental consent — may be downright unlawful,” it said.

Google challenges the Oxford study

Google disputed the methodology used by the Oxford researchers.

“We disagree with the methodology and the findings of this study.
It mischaracterises ordinary functional services like crash
reporting and analytics, and how apps share data to deliver those
services,” a spokesman said in a statement to Business Insider.

“Across Google, and in Google Play, we have clear policies and
guidelines for how developers and third-party apps can handle
data and we require developers to be transparent and ask for user
permission. If an app violates our policies, we take action.”

Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg,
Facebook’s CEO and chairman.


Lead researcher Reuben Binns responded: “We are not claiming that
all instances of third-party tracking are unjustified, as crash
reporting and analytics are useful tools for developers. Google
offer third-party tracking capabilities for both purposes.
However, their analytics tools are also often used by developers
to measure the effectiveness of their targeted advertising.”

Amazon and Twitter declined to comment. Facebook and Verizon did
not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for

The “excessive” thirst for data

Privacy International said the Oxford research showed that the
thirst for data among tech behemoths has become “excessive.” Data
Exploitation Programme Lead Frederike Kaltheuner told Business

“Third party tracking is the perfect example that shows how
impossible it has become for any average user to fully understand
what is happening to their data, let alone to opt-out or take
control of their data.

“The ways in which Google, Facebook (and many others that most
people have never even heard of) track people on the vast
majority of apps they use is simply excessive. This is no longer
about the need to collect data to show ‘relevant ads’ — this is
about profit maximisation at the expense of people’s fundamental

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