52: How Apps Use Data

Published November 17, 2020
Run time: 00:21:38
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There’s no such thing as a free app or website. If you’re not paying for a product, you are the product, and when it comes to “free” apps, the product is your private information. Apps collect, store, and use data in ways that are both purposeful and nefarious. In this episode, Rob and Tim chat about why apps collect data and how it’s used, how app owners can be intentional with user data, and how app users can protect their information.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • What types of data apps collect
  • The ways apps utilize this data, for good and bad
  • How app owners can be intentional with the data they collect
  • What tools are available to protect your data

This episode is brought to you by The Jed Mahonis Group, where we make sense of mobile app development with our non-technical approach to building custom mobile software solutions. Learn more at https://jmg.mn.

Recorded October 30, 2020 | Edited by Jordan Daoust | Produced by Jenny Karkowski

Show Notes:

Episode Transcript:

Tim Bornholdt 0:00
Welcome to Constant Variables, a podcast where we take a non-technical look at all things technical. I'm Tim Bornholdt.

Rob Bentley 0:06
And I'm Rob Bentley. Let's get nerdy.

Tim Bornholdt 0:23
What are we chatting about today, Rob?

Rob Bentley 0:25
We're going to talk some specifics on how apps use data.

Tim Bornholdt 0:30
Pretty big topic, how do you think we're going to tackle this?

Rob Bentley 0:32
We're just going to have to go into, I guess, the different ways and kind of break things down from there. But I guess first, we can start talking about, what kinds of data do apps actually produce?

Tim Bornholdt 0:44
Right. Because yeah, there's lots of different ways apps use data, but yeah, it's good idea to classify what kinds of data apps actually produce. So the first one we can talk about is probably the most obvious one, right? So data that's provided explicitly by you, the user. So this would be things like your name, email, birthday, password, pictures. That's one piece of data that, you know, if you sign up for Facebook, Twitter, whatever, anything that you actually put into the system, that's data.

Rob Bentley 1:16
Yep. And other people can provide data about you as well, whether it's uploading a picture of you and them, or, you know, buying you a gift on the internet, you know, inputting like, Oh, I need to send it somewhere, I'm going to send it to this person's address. Then your data is inputted to the web by somebody else.

Tim Bornholdt 1:37
Yeah, it might not necessarily be data that you gave Facebook, but if somebody puts it in on your behalf, then Facebook has that data, obviously. Another category of data that apps produce is data that's provided by the device itself. So this would be things like, what kind of phone you're using, what screen size it has, what browser you're accessing it with, the IP address that you have, just basic, we would call it kind of diagnostic information, about the device that you're using the app on.

Rob Bentley 2:10
And there's also, even that seems kind of like background information, there's a lot more that is specific to the background that's happening on your phone as well. This could be apps that are tracking your location, what time of day you're doing certain actions, where you are, you know, crash report software that's running in the background needs to gather analytics. All these things like that are put in there to try to help make things better. But you know, you don't really notice them happening.

Tim Bornholdt 2:42
Oh, yeah, it's things that you wouldn't even assume would be valuable. Like, you know, how long you're using an app, or what features you're using inside an app, what screens you tapped on to get to. All of that information, in most apps, is actually being tracked without you even knowing that that's happening.

Rob Bentley 3:00
And then there's even another like, I guess, a deeper layer to data that you didn't know is being collected. For example, whenever you go and have a Login with Facebook feature, well that is provided by, it's called an SDK, or a software development kit. And so for the Facebook example, if you put this SDK in your app for that nice little login button, you're also adding about 800 files to your application. And they're collecting all kinds of data, everything that they can. And they do this, you know, mainly for serving ads, but any app with ads is also collecting as much data as it possibly can. And you just have to realize that's happening as you're using your mobile apps.

Tim Bornholdt 3:51
There's the old saying of if, If you're not paying for something then you're the product. And that's exactly what Facebook's doing. And I mean, not just Facebook, it's easy to dump on Facebook, because you know, I hate Facebook.

Rob Bentley 4:03
Yeah, they're not the only ones.

Tim Bornholdt 4:05
Yeah, they're certainly not the only ones, like Google, Apple, everybody is doing this to some degree or another. Other stuff that you might not know is being collected is when you have ads that show up on your screen. There's different things called beacons, and you've probably heard of cookies, there's all sorts of little pieces of data that are floating out there about you. And it's, again, things like when you click on an ad, it'll track that you clicked on that ad. And it will remember, you know, months down the road that you clicked on that ad so that it's building up a profile on you to be able to pay back web hosts or app providers that information so they can get credit for them sending you their way.

Rob Bentley 4:47
Yeah, all kinds of things that I didn't know about before I started in this industry. So now that we've talked about what kinds of data the aps produce, now, how do they use this data?

Tim Bornholdt 5:00
Well, the best place you can go to see this is, in theory, your privacy policy for whatever service you're using. Now, a lot of privacy policies, even after things like the GDPR, and the California law that was passed a couple of years back, wven those don't really help you make privacy or force people to make privacy policies that you can understand. But for the most part, they're at least pretty good. So how apps actually use data? Well, I mean, first and foremost, you would hope that apps use the data that you provide, willingly or unknowingly, to do the thing that you downloaded the app for in the first place.

Rob Bentley 5:41
Yeah, exactly. I mean, if it's not helping you do the function of the app, you're probably just going to delete the app. So first and foremost, it's to just function. But also, once you have a functioning app, it's always a goal to improve it. So you want to see like, where users are going in the app, how they navigate, which features are being used, which ones aren't. And, of course, when bugs and crashes happen, we need data about that to be able to fix it and make things better.

Tim Bornholdt 6:09
Other reasons you might use the data generated from an app is to further your own business objectives. If you are collecting data about people, collecting emails, you might want to use those emails to market to them later or to run analytics to see which types of users are more likely to spend money inside your app, different kinds of objectives like that.

Rob Bentley 6:31
And then this does come up and hopefully it doesn't happen a lot, but it is a thing. Sometimes, a court will demand that you hand data over because they need it for some reason.

Tim Bornholdt 6:44
Yeah, typically, if a user of your app does something nefarious, and the courts need to know specific information about them, then they can submit a subpoena to you or a warrant and get that information. And again, this doesn't happen often. But the bigger you get, you know, if you're Facebook, you're probably fielding a ton of subpoena requests, as opposed to, you know, us running the Minnesota Craft Beer Tracker. We haven't fielded a single one. But it's certainly a thing that a app could do with your data.

Rob Bentley 7:18
And then sometimes apps will use data just to be able to communicate with you. There's different reasons why they might need to, whether it's customer support, or, you know, there could be a few different reasons why an app would need to actually communicate with you as a user.

Tim Bornholdt 7:35
Yeah, typically, it's support or getting feedback from you on a certain feature, or, again, marketing is a pretty common one. Wut one way or the other, they obviously are going to use that data to communicate you with you if they can.

Another big reason that apps use data or how apps use data would be to help them secure their apps. So this would be again, the bigger you are, the more likely you are going to be a target of some sort, of people trying to hack in and get information from you. So there's ways that you can use data to determine whether a request is a legitimate one that you actually made, or one that a bot made on your behalf. So that's another big reason how people would use your data is to kind of create a profile of how the app is actually used. And then they make sure that if there's traffic that looks suspicious or weird, then they can flag it and, you know, take steps from there.

Rob Bentley 8:32
And here's I think what most people are going to be concerned about when you think about an app using your data is, of course, there are apps that take your data specifically to sell it because that data is valuable to other companies, especially for giving you ads, but not only just ads, targeted ads that are specific to you. So they need data about you to figure out what to show you.

Tim Bornholdt 8:59
There's so many people that they always talk about, you know, when you're standing in a room, for example, if you're standing in a room with an Alexa device, and you're talking with your family, and you start just really getting on BMW cars, for example. You know, people will say, Yeah, I was talking about BMW cars. And then the next day, all of the sudden, all my ads were for BMW cars. And, you know, this is like a real thing that happens.

Rob Bentley 9:26
Yeah, it's happened to me.

Tim Bornholdt 9:28
And it's super creepy. And that's exactly what people are afraid of with these huge companies is, they can track all this data, and they have the power to actually sort through it, which we've never had before in human history. But we can sort through all this data and then really target to make sure that you are buying things that you didn't even know you needed, or, you know, trying to exploit things as you decide that you might be interested in something. You know, these are long term, long tail campaigns and things that people are going to use data that you use in an app. Like, again, if you have the Facebook SDK thrown into your app, Facebook is going to know what you're doing inside that app, which will feed into your algorithm, which feeds into what ads they display for you.

Rob Bentley 10:11
Yeah, there's so much data that companies have about you just from using the internet. And it even tracks across different websites. It's not just Facebook knows, Okay, you're in this app. It's every app that they have their hands in, and even some that you don't even realize.

Tim Bornholdt 10:30
Because you know, all these services, Google and Amazon and Facebook, they all have little plugins and things that they get web developers to post on their website, which then just opens the door for all these companies to just gather up and suck in as much data as they possibly can about you. This is the way it is. And I think we talked about this back in 2013 when we had a blog post about how people use their data, but it seems like more and more and more, this is coming to the forefront of people's interest is just all this data out there that people have that they don't even know they're giving to these companies. And it's weird.

Rob Bentley 11:11
Yeah, it is. And as an app owner, you're definitely going to be dealing with data, you're going to be dealing with user data. And there are good ways, you know, steps you can take to not be nefarious with user data.

Tim Bornholdt 11:27
Yeah, I think the first thing that you kind of have to do now with all these laws that are coming out is you have to have a privacy policy, and you actually have to live up to it. It shouldn't be a document that your lawyer creates the first day that your app goes out, and then you never look at it again. You really should be looking at that privacy policy every time you push a new feature to your app and reviewing to make sure that you're actually handling data in the way that you promised you would.

Rob Bentley 11:54
Right. Another thing you can do is actually take steps to protect the data and make sure your servers are secure, that you're using encryption, just industry standard stuff usually goes a long way to making your whole application more secure, so that even if you do have good intentions with the data, that other third parties are not getting access to it without you knowing.

Tim Bornholdt 12:18
Another good way that you can be a good steward of user data is to just collect as little of it as possible. If you don't need Sign in with Facebook, don't use it, then you're not giving Facebook that information. You're not unwittingly collecting all that information.

Rob Bentley 12:34
Right. And if you don't need someone's age, or you know, whatever it is, don't collect it, then you don't have anything that can get breached.

Tim Bornholdt 12:43
That's something that Apple's been kind of holding developers accountable in certain ways. On signup screens,they'll actually challenge you in App Review and say, Why are you collecting birthday? Why are you collecting street address? You know, all those different things. It's good that Google is doing that or that Apple is doing that because they're showing that they're trying to be good stewards, because not every app needs a birthday. But if your app has a certain requirement for it, then it makes sense. But you just need to think about it instead of just blanket collecting as much data as you possibly can.

Rob Bentley 13:18
And again, unless you are building an app specifically to sell user data, which I hope you aren't, but every feature that you decide should or shouldn't go into the app, really think about how this would affect the user data and privacy. Because I know we touched on it before, but just if you have good intentions about what you're doing, usually that's going to shine through

Tim Bornholdt 13:42
Well and also the one way you can think about it is think about worst case scenario. What happens if your app becomes compromised, and the data just goes everywhere? If you don't have data to begin with, then you're fine. Right? But if you have all this private information about all these users with email addresses and ages and birthdays, and all that, you're just opening yourself up to a potential disaster.

Rob Bentley 14:11
On the other side, as well as the app owner being protective over data and being good with it and having the privacy policy, what can you do as a user to protect your own data?

Tim Bornholdt 14:21
Well, there's quite a bit you can do as a user. First of all, you can vote with your feet. I mean, if there's a service that's doing things that you are not comfortable with, or creeped out by, you know, don't use Facebook, don't use Google. There's a lot of other services. And of course, you know, Facebook is the social network. And Google is the search engine. So there's, you know, some times where you have to go back and use those services, but you can use other tools and other services, other social networks that are more friendly with your data. I use this search engine called Ecosia sometimes and I'll use it as my default. DuckDuckGo is another great option but Ecosia is one where when you put in a search term, it uses Bing as its back end, which is Microsoft's search engine. But every time you search, it shows ads, but the money from those ads goes to planting trees. So just like a small thing you can do. And for the most part, the results are great unless you're like me and Rob where you have to search technical, like StackOverflow articles all day. Google is still better at it than Bing is. But that's just like a small thing you can do is just, you know, vote with your feet and pick a different service. And just try it and see if it works for you.

Rob Bentley 15:37
Because right, you got to remember, there's no such thing as free. A free website to use, they're taking your data, they're selling it, they're using it to target ads at you somehow. If you're not paying for something, then you are the product.

Tim Bornholdt 15:51
Another good thing you can use is there's different tracking blockers out there. Safari's browser is doing it by default now, which is really cool. But you can also get different things like 1Blocker or or Adblock, there's so many, you can just search the store. And these are just little tools that block different JavaScript from loading, which it'll have the amazing effect of webpages load way faster. Because if you load like cnn.com, it's just a brain fart of ads and crap all over the screen. And you only get this little bit where you can actually read what you're looking for. The downside is different websites pop up and say, Hey, you're using an ad blocker, so you can't read this. And it's just like, Okay, well, you can, you know, refresh it without the blocker on or whatever. But that's just one way that you can protect yourself by default is put up these ad blockers. And they'll also have the effect of blocking tracking signals and beacons as well.

Rob Bentley 16:55
And just when you're on websites, just be careful what you put on there. Don't sign up for every little thing that you need to, or you feel like you need to. Maybe you don't, you know, maybe you don't have to give your own data away and just really think about it next time you're signing up for some service that you might only use once and never again, or you know, anything like that. Just keep it in mind, this is what's actually happening,

Tim Bornholdt 17:22
Right. Because the more you post into Facebook or the more you search on Google, the more that they learn about you and the more they can use that knowledge to, again, sell to you and also take that data and give it to other people for money. So that's a great point is limit what you post on the internet.

Rob Bentley 17:42
Yeah, just make sure it's actually going to be something you'll use a lot. And it's important to you, provides a purpose, all of that.

Tim Bornholdt 17:49
And a big thing too is make sure you're actually getting equal value out of these things. And it might seem more like tongue in cheek than I mean it but you know, I quit being on Facebook a while ago, probably a year ago now. And I do not miss it one bit. I still talk to all my friends. There were plenty of ways to talk to people before Facebook, but people are so afraid of, Well, if I quit Facebook, then I'll lose my messenger. And I'll lose seeing all the events. And it's like, you know, you don't miss out on anything that you wouldn't have missed out on before. So evaluate if it's really something that you actually get value out of or if you just get sucked into an anxiety filled doom scroll session every single time you go on there where you're yelling at your uncle who thinks this way and your aunt who thinks the other way. It's like, are you actually getting value from that? Or are you just, you know, being sucked into all these different things and giving away all your data?

Rob Bentley 18:42
A lot of this does come down to, yes, apps are using your data, especially if they're free, even if they're not, it's happening. And some apps are very good with your data, and some are not so good. So as you're building products, or even just using them, just be careful and be intentional about what you do. Because your data is out there. And you got to be smart with it.

Tim Bornholdt 19:07
Yeah, it's one thing that bothers me as an app developer is seeing everybody using software that they don't know exactly what's being done with their data. And, you know, as soon as you explain it to somebody, they're like, Hey, that's super messed up. And I think the worst thing that's happened on the internet over the last 25 years has been this attitude that advertisers have where they're just entitled to all this information and all this data, and they're not. No one's entitled to know exactly how you use the internet, what websites you use, and how often you use them. I don't think it should be data that is just inherently belongs to advertisers. So that's why I run ad blockers and I run them on my own sites and sometimes the sites I build, they're broken because you have to use these trackers and and stuff like that. So you have to find ways to work with it. But I really think it's important that people understand that these services aren't free, and that there's real damage being done with your data. So, you know, just be conscious of how you use the internet and, and take steps that you can to run ad blockers and to keep as much of your data private as you possibly can.

Rob Bentley 20:26
Yeah, just be intentional about what you do online. That's really what it comes down to.

Tim Bornholdt 20:31
Exactly. So we could have just led with that, that would have saved people 21 minutes, but yeah, that's okay. Well, I think that's a good place to wrap up the show here. Show notes for this episode can be found at constantvariables.co. You can get in touch with us by emailing Hello@constantvariables.co. I'm @TimBornholdt on Twitter and the show is @CV_podcast. Today's episode was produced by Jenny Karkowski and edited by the xenial Jordan Daoust.

If you have one minute quick before you leave, we would really love it if you'd left us a review on the Apple Podcast app. It shouldn't take much time at all. And it really does help new people find our show, just head to constantvariables.co/review and we'll link you right there.

This episode was brought to you by The Jed Mahonis Group. If you're looking for a technical team who can help make sense of mobile software development, give us a shout at JMG.mn.