Verizon’s spyware-launcher will be sending app usage data to advertisers

An app launcher and search tool AppFlash will be pre-installed on devices sold by Verizon. It allows the telecommunication giant and its partner companies to track the usage of apps on the phone and gather a lot of other information on the behavior of its user. The launcher is now being tested on LG K20 V.

A launcher is a “skin”-app that allows changing the interface and functions of a smartphone, adds additional services, options and settings to the operation system. In order to do this, the app demands access to a bunch of system functions and to the device’s contents.

An expert of the Electronic Frontier Foundation has called AppFlash “spyware” and expressed concern over privacy protection since the launcher gathers information about apps that are installed on a device by its user. It also has access to web search and browsing history. It is allowed by its privacy policy to use this information for targeting ads and to share it within the “Verizon family of companies”. This family includes AOL and Yahoo that dominate web advertising market.

It’s quite easy to imagine the variety of strategies of exploiting the information about apps that a person uses. Advertisers love to know what bank you keep your money at or if you have installed a fertility calendar. A device’s owner can switch AppFlash off, but a root access is required to remove it. Until uninstalled, an app cannot be considered innocuous.

Another point of concern for EFF experts is the potential vulnerability of AppFlash to hackers. Being hacked, the app grants access to the sensitive behavioral data.

Being one of the largest international wireless access providers, Verizon is preparing to the new rules that regulate the distribution of users’ personal data by ISPs. The US Senate has already approved the bill that eliminates for ISPs the requirement to get a user’s explicit consent before selling or sharing the data on their behavior on the Web. The bill has yet to be approved by the House and signed by President Trump who is well known for his urge to support businesses and remove obstacles to their development.

Verizon and other companies that sell web access and devices with pre-installed apps harvest huge amounts of data on their users’ behavior, habits, lifestyle, health, income, spendings, notions and plans. While users have no control over this data, its transfer and usage. In the case of pre-installed apps, there’s even no place for personal free will and choice in downloading an app that has access to information. It is also not so easy to switch to another ISP if your provider sells your data (not to mention the fact that there hardly are any that don’t). Finally, Google has a habit of blocking anti-tracking apps in its Play Store which makes the task of securing an Android device more complicated.

We understand the anxiety about these trends. One of the main functions of AdGuard is blocking websites and apps from tracking user activity and gathering their data. We are inclined to do all we can to keep those who have installed AdGuard thoroughly protected.

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