Smartphones share user data every four and a half minutes, study claims

30 Mar 2021

Image: © Maria_Savenko/Stock.adobe.com

A new TCD study raises fresh privacy concerns about the data collected by Apple and Google devices.

Android and iPhone handsets share data with Google and Apple every four and a half minutes on average, even when the device is not being used, according to a new study.

Prof Doug Leith in the Connect research centre at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) wanted to investigate what data iOS on an iPhone shares with Apple and what data Android on a Pixel phone shares with Google.

He found that a “wealth of information” is being collected by these companies, even when a phone is idle in a pocket or bag.

‘When we simply use our phones as phones, it is much harder to see why Apple and Google need to collect data’
– PROF DOUG LEITH

His study claims that both iOS and Android transmit telemetry data such as the insertion of a SIM and collect handset details including serial number and phone number.

While Google collects a “notably larger volume” of handset data than Apple, according to the study, Leith said that Apple collects “pretty much the same sort of data as Google” and that iPhones offer no greater privacy than Google devices.

Apple not only collects data about a user’s handset activity but also about handsets nearby, he added, meaning the company could potentially track which people you are near to, as well as when and where.

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The study claims that there are currently few, if any, “realistic options” for preventing this data sharing.

“I think most people accept that Apple and Google need to collect data from our phones to provide services such as iCloud or Google Drive,” Leith added. “But when we simply use our phones as phones – to make and receive calls and nothing more – it is much harder to see why Apple and Google need to collect data.

“While the privacy of mobile handsets has been much studied, most of this work has focused on measurement of the app tracking/advertising ecosystem and much less attention has been paid to data sharing by the handset’s operating system with the mobile OS developer.”

Leith was also part of a team that flagged potential data privacy concerns last year when contact-tracing apps were first being rolled out in Ireland.

In response to the latest study, a spokesperson for Google told Siliconrepublic.com that the research “outlines how smartphones work”.

“Modern cars regularly send basic data about vehicle components, their safety status and service schedules to car manufacturers, and mobile phones work in very similar ways,” they added. “This report details those communications, which help ensure that iOS or Android software is up to date, services are working as intended, and that the phone is secure and running efficiently.”

Sarah Harford is sub-editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com