[real-eyes] Mobile Apps Invading Your Privacy

  • From: Steven Clark <kcpadfoot@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: real-eyes@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Wed, 06 Apr 2011 06:38:20 -0500

Mobile Apps Invading Your Privacy
by Tyler Shields
APRIL 5, 2011
article in the Wall Street Journal
, dated April 5, 2011, disclosed that Federal prosecutors in New Jersey 
are investigating
numerous smart phone application manufacturers for allegedly, illegally 
and distributing personal private information to third party 
advertisement groups.
The allegations state that mobile applications are gathering data such 
as GPS location,
device identifiers, gender, and even user age without proper notice or 
from the end user. The Journal tested 101 applications and found that 56 
of them
transmitted the device unique identifier off the device, while 47 
transmitted the
phone’s location. Five of the tested applications leaked personal 
information such
as user gender and age.
The folks at the Veracode research team decided to spend a bit of our 
time today
breaking apart one of the accused applications to see what could be 
found within
the code. Given what was written in the Journal article, we thought it 
would be most
interesting to take an in-depth look through the Pandora application for 
the Android
platform. A quote from the article states the following about the 
Pandora application:
In Pandora’s case, both the Android and iPhone versions of its app 
transmitted information
about a user’s age, gender, and location, as well as unique identifiers 
for the phone,
to various advertising networks. Pandora gathers the age and gender 
information when
a user registers for the service.
Our first step was to analyze the application using the Veracode 
platform. We followed
up the automated static analysis with a manual analysis of the compiled 
dex code.
The results were fairly interesting. The Pandora for Android application 
to be integrated with a number of advertising libraries. Specifically we 
found FIVE
(yes that’s FIVE!) advertisement libraries compiled into the application:
comScore (SecureStudies)
, and
. Looking even closer, we analyzed each of the modules to determine the 
type of data
they access.
The first library we decided to break apart was the AdMarvel and AdMob 
The AdMarvel library references the AdMob library fairly significantly. 
AdMob in
particular accesses the GPS location, application package name, and 
application version
information. Additionally there were variable references within the ad 
library that
appear to transmit the user’s birthday, gender, and postal code 
information. The
code snippets below are taken from a decompilation of the AdMob library 
where GPS
locations are being gathered. As you can see in the code, the library 
requests permissions
public static Location getCoordinates(Context unknown)
.... SNIP ....
String str1 = "android.permission.ACCESS_COARSE_LOCATION";
int m = unknown.checkCallingOrSelfPermission(str1);
.... SNIP ....
String str2 = "android.permission.ACCESS_FINE_LOCATION";
int n = unknown.checkCallingOrSelfPermission(str2);
We can also see where the library actually attempts to capture GPS 
location information
on a continuous looping mechanism:
int i4 = Log.d("AdMobSDK", "Trying to get locations from GPS.");
localObject2 = (LocationManager)unknown.getSystemService("location");
if (localObject2 == null) break label428;
Criteria localCriteria = new Criteria();
localObject3 = 
((LocationManager)localObject2).getBestProvider(localCriteria, 1);
.... SNIP ....
int i5 = Log.d("AdMobSDK", "Cannot access user's location. Permissions 
are not set.");
.... SNIP ....
int i6 = Log.d("AdMobSDK", "No location providers are available. Ads 
will not be
.... SNIP ....
if (Log.isLoggable("AdMobSDK", 3)) int i7 = Log.d("AdMobSDK", "Location 
setup successfully.");
AdManager.1 local1 = new AdManager.1((LocationManager)localObject2);
Looper localLooper = unknown.getMainLooper();
0.0F, local1, localLooper);
We also saw references to the user’s gender:
Object localObject = k; Gender localGender1 = Gender.MALE;
if (localObject == localGender1)
localObject = "m";
} while (true) {
return localObject;
Gender localGender2 = k;
Gender localGender3 = Gender.FEMALE;
if (localGender2 == localGender3) { localObject = "f"; continue; }
localObject = null;
And of course, access of the infamous Android ID value (android_id):
if (f == null) { Object localObject1 = unknown.getContentResolver();
localObject2 = localObject1;
localObject1 = Settings.Secure.getString((ContentResolver)localObject2, 
The analysis into the remaining libraries resulted in even more of the 
same. The
SecureStudies library accesses the android_id and directly sends a hash 
of the data
to http://b.scorecardresearch.com while the Medialets library accesses 
the device’s
GPS location, bearing, altitude, android_id, connection status, network 
device brand, model, release revision, and current IP address.
So what does this mean to the end user? It means your personal 
information is being
transmitted to advertising agencies in mass quantities. As more and more 
“free” applications
attempt to monetize their offerings, we will likely see more of your 
personal information
being shuttled out to marketing and advertising data aggregation firms. 
The application
developers may not even be aware of the privacy violations they are 
introducing by
using third party advertising libraries. They may merely think they are 
getting $x
per ad impression, not that the ad library is leaking significant 
information about
the user.
In isolation some of this data is uninteresting, but when compiled into 
a single
unifying picture, it can provide significant insight into a persons 
life. Consider
for a moment that your current location is being tracked while you are 
at your home,
office, or significant other’s house. Couple that with your gender and 
age and then
with your geolocated IP address. When all that is placed into a single 
basket, it’s
pretty easy to determine who someone is, what they do for a living, who 
they associate
with, and any number of other traits about them. I don’t know about you, 
but that
feels a little Orwellian to me.
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