A group led by a Rutgers University professor just created an Android smartphone app that notifies users when their location data is being tracked and transmitted by another app.
Assistant professor Janne Lindqvist’s new app displays a banner across Android screens saying, “Your location is accessed by [app name],” when said app is transmitting location data, taking advantage of technology already present on the Android operating system that few users were aware even existed.
“People were really surprised that some apps were accessing their location, or how often some apps were accessing their location,” Lindqvist told MIT Technology Review of the app’s beta testing group, many of whom were “shocked” at the frequency of the alerts.
According to Lindqvist’s research paper describing the project, he hopes applications like the one developed by his team, will push other application developers to take more steps toward information gathering transparency in future products, and even motivate them to collect less data, or give consumers a choice about the amount of data collected.
Google used to give Android users the option of enabling or disabling specific app permissions, but removed the feature in a recent operating system software update from December. The company also has a built-in mechanism to prevent apps from surveilling other apps, which Lindqvist’s team essentially programmed around with a process known as “rooting” to make their app function.
A similar app called “ProtectMyPrivacy” already exists for Apple iPhones, but users have to “jailbreak,” or hack the operating system to install it. Unlike Google however, Apple gives iPhone users the option of enabling or disabling location tracking for specific apps.
Lindqvist’s app announcement comes just days after another National Secuirty Agency and British intelligence surveillance program was leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. That program tracks, among other things, the location data being transmitted by weakly secured smartphone apps that employ targeted ads.
The app will reportedly be available on the Google Play Android app store within two months.