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It is a well-known fact that our phone is listening to us and tracking our activities, but most people are stumped when it comes to explaining what that actually means. When people say that a company uses their data, do they know what they are actually talking about?
New research from the University of Bath’s School of Management shows that the privacy and security features that are supposed to provide customers with more control over their data are, well, misunderstood. According to the study, 43% of phone users were unclear about what exactly “app tracking” means, and many thought it was a crucial part of what the app needs to function on their device.
App tracking is a tool used by companies to collect data from users in order to deliver targeted advertisements. For example, when an iPhone user first downloads an app, they will receive a pop-up asking whether they want to allow the app company to track their activity across other apps. Android phone users can only access tracking consent through their phone settings.
According to the study, 24% percent of people thought that this tracking access refers to sharing their physical location, rather than tracing activity across devices. Because of this, many people accepted cross-app tracking on apps that require access to the device’s location (like food delivery apps). Over half of the participants in the study said they were concerned about privacy and security, but analysis showed no connection between a lower rate of accepting app tracking and the aforementioned concern for privacy.
“We asked people about their privacy concerns and expected to see people who are concerned about protecting their privacy allowing fewer apps to track their data, but this wasn’t the case,” said Hannah Hutton, postgraduate researcher from the University of Bath’s School of Management. “There were significant misunderstandings about what app tracking means. People commonly believed they needed to allow tracking for the app to function correctly.”
A likely source for the confusion is the deliberately misleading wording of these access requests by the apps. Users might think they are opting for greater functionality in their app experience, rather than just relevant ads. Even though the main text of the prompt for app tracking consent is standardized across apps, the developers can include an explanation for why permission is needed. This opens opportunities for false or misleading information, both intentionally and unintentionally.
People are slowly learning more about this ever-changing digital landscape. David Ellis, a Professor of Behavioural Science said that although we are now familiar with the benefits of having a fingerprint, facial recognition and PIN numbers to protect our devices and privacy, there needs to be more work done so people can make transparent decisions about what other data is used for in the digital age.