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Big Revolution - The shady side of popular apps

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Welcome to Friday's Big Revolution. Let's dive straight in... – Martin from Big Revolution
 
February 8 · Issue #342 · View online
Big Revolution
Welcome to Friday’s Big Revolution. Let’s dive straight in…
– Martin from Big Revolution

Big things you need to know today
  • Popular news aggregation app Nuzzel has been acquired by Scroll, a publisher-endorsed ad-blocker founded by former Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile. Nuzzel is a great tool, although the core product hasn’t evolved much in the past couple of years, as its team searched for a sustainable business model.
  • Spotify is threatening to immediately ban users who use ad blockers. The company’s new terms of service get tough.
The big thought
Credit: Rob Hampson on Unsplash
The shady side of popular apps
There have been plenty of news stories about user tracking over the past couple of years – websites, ad tech, social networks… but one area of online tracking that has avoided much serious exposure is what happens behind the scenes of your favourite smartphone apps.
It’s come to the fore this week as news broke about the sheer number of apps recording user interactions. Yes, many companies – like Expedia and Hotels.com – recorded every tap and swipe inside their apps using third-party tools. And none told users they were doing it, even in the small print nobody reads.
Interaction recording tools are generally used to improve user experience by highlighting where users get into trouble with the interface, but they can lead to security problems.
“Even though sensitive data is supposed to be masked, some data — like passport numbers and credit card numbers — was leaking,” wrote TechCrunch’s Zack Whittaker.
While it’s easy to use apps like Ghostery to see what trackers are in use on the websites you visit, third-party tracking code used by app developers tends to be completely hidden from users. That also allows developers to add secret monetisation methods like selling users’ location.
Ad blockers are a popular way of stopping unsavoury tracking on the web, but they don’t work on code hidden deep in apps.
Apple is telling developers to remove code that tracks user interactions where it’s not explicitly revealed to users. This is encouraging, even though the company is simply enforcing its existing rules. And it’s worth noting iOS is far more locked-down and heavily policed than Android is.
Let’s hope journalists keep the pressure up to make sure all in-app tracking is explicitly opt-in, and clearly explained.
One big read
Reflecting on My Failure to Build a Billion-Dollar Company Reflecting on My Failure to Build a Billion-Dollar Company
That rare thing: a Silicon Valley entrepreneur opening up about not building the unicorn they envisaged. A good read about how things don’t always go to plan.
That’s all for today...
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Back tomorrow with a weekend edition packed with good reads.
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