When you install a free app on your phone, especially if it’s from a big brand, you expect it to respect your privacy and not collect personal information and track your activity.
But as anyone who has watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix will understand, data is currency for these companies. It's how they make money from you, while allowing you to use their services for free.
Recently, Apple added privacy labels to all apps available on its devices so you can see exactly what information an app collects about you. They’ve been likened to nutrition labels, which let you see at a glance if a particular product is bad for you.
VPN service Surfshark ran a fine-toothed comb over 200 popular apps and ranked them according to which ask for the most data, and which require the least.
As you might expect, Google’s apps topped many of those charts as the worst offenders. Gmail, Chrome – even YouTube for Kids – collect more personal data than alternative apps.
Social media apps – again, unsurprisingly – turned out to be the type of app which collect the most data, but so do food delivery apps. Image editing and web browsers tend to be best for privacy, because they don't ask for personal info.
The three apps which collect the most data are all owned by Facebook:
And here’s the rest of the top 10:
- Amazon Shopping
It’s not just your name, email address and other obvious stuff that apps collect. It can be as wide ranging as recording your financial information, health and fitness, browsing and search history, items you purchase, your location, your list of contacts and other sensitive information.
In some cases, this data is sold to third parties who can build up a clear profile of you and use it for various purposes, including to advertise products you’re more likely to be interested in buying.
A study carried out in 2018 by Oxford University found that the average app can transfer your data to 10 companies.
In the interactive table below, you can see which apps top each category for collecting the most personal information across 14 categories... and those at the bottom of the list collect the least.
Amazon Shopping and Wish topped the list of shopping apps, with 26 and 24 pieces of information. Etsy and Poshmark were the least invasive, collecting just 12 types of data.
Should I be worried about all this data collection?
Yes and no. On the one hand, these apps need your personal data, such as your address and payment details, to provide their services. If you are concerned, you should read their privacy policies and find out what happens to that data.
It also depends upon where you live. Privacy laws differ, and those living in California and in Europe (including the UK) are fairly well protected by the CCPA and GDPR respectively. These laws prescribe how personally identifiable data can be handled, and companies can face huge fines for breaches.
You are, of course, free to not use these apps and services. But in some cases, that means less convenience.
Moving to a different social network or messaging app is all very well, but it’s impractical if none of your friends use the least-data-collecting alternative.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to have complete privacy when you download and use apps but now, at least, you can clearly see which apps collect the most data about you.