There’s no question that apps can make your life easier. Smartphone apps can help you get organized, give you directions when you’re lost, find the nearest gas station or ATM, entertain you, help you get in shape and much more. But while you’re sharing your life with your apps, how much information about you are those useful tools broadcasting to the rest of the world?
Most people aren’t surprised to learn that apps can (and do) collect your personal data. A cursory read of the Terms of Service (ToS) of any app reveals this information. However, you may not know what kind of data your apps are collecting - or who they’re sharing it with.

Oversharing Apps

Nearly every app you use, particularly if it's free, shares your information in some form. In most cases, that personal data is generalized and shared non-specifically with advertisers for a variety of reasons - usually to generate more targeted ads that match your habits, preferences and likely interests.

But some apps can share too much. One recent example was revealed when the makers of the popular "Brightest Flashlight Free" Android app, which had been downloaded more than 10 million times, reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) after it deceived users into sharing device information and geographic locations with third parties like advertising networks. The app’s privacy policy failed to mention that the information it collected would be shared.

Other popular apps that may be sharing too much include:
  • Angry Birds: Accesses your phone ID, contacts and location data (and shares your location with third parties)

  • Pandora: Accesses phone ID, location data and contacts (and shares your contacts)

  • TextPlus 4: Accesses and sends phone ID information to ad companies

  • Facebook: Many third-party apps on Facebook are heavy offenders in oversharing your private data
Learn more about what's at stake in Digital Data: Why What's Being Collected Matters.

Oversharing Health and Fitness Apps

There are thousands of apps that let you track your health, create a personalized diet or fitness plan and help you organize your overall health strategies. In order to work, these apps ask for a lot of personal information - and some of them turn around and sell that information to advertisers.

A a report released by the FTC in May 2014 looked at a dozen health and fitness apps, and found that these apps collectively sent personal data to 76 different third parties. Among the data shared were names and email addresses, location, gender, diets, exercise habits and medical symptom searches.

How to Protect Yourself

While some apps will disclose how user information is being used upfront, others might not be so straightforward. Here are steps you can take to prevent your data from being overshared with third parties through apps:
  • Research apps and the companies that distribute them, including user reviews and mentions in industry publications, before you download them.

  • Read the entire privacy policy and, if you have an Android phone, read the entire "Permissions" screen as well.

  • When prompted by the app, opt out of location sharing.

  • Check the privacy settings on your smartphone periodically and make sure they’re set as high as possible without compromising app functions. For example, map and directions apps like Google require your geo-location.

  • Always update your apps when you’re alerted to a new version, as these updates often repair "bugs" found in earlier versions.

  • Delete any apps you’re no longer using from your phone.
Neither smartphones nor Web-based apps are likely to stop collecting information from users, but you can make sure that information isn’t shared in ways you aren’t comfortable with. Pay attention to the fine print, and keep your personal information personal.