Your phone apps may be spying on your habits

Normally, I am not too worried about whether my GPS tracking is turned on when I am using my smartphone.

In fact, until I read two articles last week, it was hard to remember when the last time was that I even checked.

But the New York Times online carried some interesting facts that readers may want to store away for future reference.

Angry Birds, the top-selling paid mobile app for iPhone in the United States and Europe, has been downloaded more than a billion times by players around the world who often spend hours slinging squawking fowl at groups of egg-stealing pigs.

While regular players are familiar with the particular destructive qualities of certain of those birds, many are seemingly unaware of one fact: the game possesses a ravenous ability to collect personal information on its users.

When Jason Hong, an associate professor at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, surveyed 40 users, all but two were unaware the game was storing their locations so they could later be the targets of ads.

What is going on, according to experts, is that applications such as Angry Birds and even more innocuous-seeming software, such as that which turns your phone into a flashlight, defines words or delivers Bible quotes, are also collecting personal information - usually the user's location and gender and the unique identification number of a smartphone. But in some cases, they cull the information from contact lists and pictures from photo libraries.

As the internet goes mobile, privacy issues surrounding phone apps have moved to the front lines of the debate over what information can be collected, when and by whom.

Next year, more people around the world will gain access to the internet through mobile phones or tablet computers than from desktop PCs, according to Gartner, the research group.

The shift has brought consumers into a grey legal area where existing privacy protections have failed to keep up with technology.

Last week, on the business and money pages of the Otago Daily Times, Dunedin lawyer Sally Peart warned that New Zealand's Privacy Act had not kept up with technological developments.

Breaches of privacy from ACC, Work and Income and Inland Revenue had been in the headlines.

But if you think you can rest easy at home when you are not on your mobile phone, think again.

Eric Horvitz, who joined Microsoft Research 20 years ago with a PhD in computer science, is about to get his long-awaited payoff - the advanced computing technologies he has spent decades working on are being incorporated into numerous Microsoft products.

Next year's version of the Excel spreadsheet program, part of the Office suite of software, will be able to comb very large amounts of data. For example, it could scan 12 million Twitter posts and create charts to show which Oscar nominee was getting the most buzz.

A new version of Outlook, the email program, is being tested that employs Dr Horvitz's machine-learning specialty to review users' email habits. It could be able to suggest whether a user wants to read each message that comes in.

Elsewhere, Microsoft's machine-learning software will trawl internal corporate computer systems.

Welcome, readers, to the new version of privacy.

dene.mackenzie@odt.co.nz

Twitter: @mackersline