UPDATE #2, April 3, 2017: We have published a revised version of this post here.
Within days of Congress repealing online privacy protections, Verizon has announced new plans to install software on customers’ devices to track what apps customers have downloaded. With this spyware, Verizon will be able to sell ads to you across the Internet based on things like which bank you use and whether you’ve downloaded a fertility app.
Verizon’s use of “AppFlash”—an app launcher and web search utility that Verizon will be rolling out to their subscribers’ Android devices “in the coming weeks”—is just the latest display of wireless carriers’ stunning willingness to compromise the security and privacy of their customers by installing spyware on end devices.
“collect information about your device and your use of the AppFlash services. This information includes your mobile number, device identifiers, device type and operating system, and information about the AppFlash features and services you use and your interactions with them. We also access information about the list of apps you have on your device.” Troubling as it may be to collect intimate details about what apps you have installed, the policy also illustrates Verizon’s intent to gather location and contact information:
“AppFlash also collects information about your device’s precise location from your device operating system as well as contact information you store on your device.” And what will Verizon use all of this information for? Why, targeted advertising on third-party websites, of course:
“AppFlash information may be shared within the Verizon family of companies, including companies like AOL who may use it to help provide more relevant advertising within the AppFlash experiences and in other places, including non-Verizon sites, services and devices.” In other words, our prediction that mobile Internet providers would start installing spyware on their customers’ phones has come true, less than 48 hours after Congress sold out your personal data to companies like Comcast and AT&T. With the announcement of AppFlash, Verizon has made clear that it intends to start monetizing its customers’ private data as soon as possible.
What are the ramifications? For one thing, this is yet another entity that will be collecting sensitive information about your mobile activity on your Android phone. It’s bad enough that Google collects much of this information already and blocks privacy-enhancing tools from being distributed through the Play Store. Adding another company that automatically tracks its customers doesn’t help matters any.
But our bigger concern is the increased attack surface an app like AppFlash creates. You can bet that with Verizon rolling this app out to such a large number of devices, hackers will be probing it for vulnerabilities, to see if they can use it as a backdoor they can break into. We sincerely hope Verizon has invested significant resources in ensuring that AppFlash is secure, because if it’s not, the damage to Americans’ cybersecurity could be disastrous.
Verizon should immediately abandon its plans to monitor its customers’ behaviors, and do what it’s paid to do: deliver quality Internet service without spying on users.