Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

More Than 5 Percent of Free Mobile Apps Include Adware

Overly aggressive ad networks — which can change users’ phone settings, send notifications and/or covertly access personally identifiable information — are present in 5 percent of free apps, according to new research by mobile security company Lookout.

Lookout estimates that mobile apps with this kind of privacy-violating adware have been downloaded at least 80 million times, mostly on Android devices.

The alleged “bad actor” ad networks — which include LeadBolt, Moolah Media, Appenda and IZP — are most common in personalization apps, to change phone wallpaper or make puzzles, Lookout found.

Lookout is publishing this data after earlier this year releasing a free push-ad detector app for Android. Now the company wants to popularize a set of industry guidelines to get mobile ad providers to respect user privacy.

(It also, of course, has a vested interest in people caring more about mobile security and perhaps then wanting to pay for Lookout’s premium apps.)

Though it might have that effect, the point of releasing the data wasn’t to freak people out, said Lookout co-founder and CTO Kevin Mahaffey. He said he thinks developers utilize bad ad networks not out of malicious intent, but rather because they haven’t thought about the implications.

“Our overall hope is that we don’t want regulation,” Mahaffey said. “Don’t get too upset; let’s think out solutions.”

Adware is more common on Android than iOS, where apps are more constrained. “There’s more freedom on Android, but with freedom comes responsibility,” Mahaffey noted.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik