Extensive data collection on Android phones which users cannot opt out of raises a “number of privacy concerns”, research conducted by Trinity College Dublin and the University of Edinburgh has found.
The research, which centred on a range of popular Android mobile phones, revealed significant data collection and sharing, including with third parties, with no opt-out available to users.
Researchers are hoping their findings will serve as “a wake-up call to the public, politicians and regulators” as they called for action in tackling the data sharing.
Professor Doug Leith, Chair of Computer Systems at Trinity College Dublin, said: “I think we have completely missed the massive and ongoing data collection by our phones, for which there is no opt-out. We’ve been too focused on web cookies and on badly behaved apps.
“Meaningful action is urgently needed to give people real control over the data that leaves their phones.”
Operating systems of Samsung, Xiaomi, Huawei, Realme, LineageOS and e/OS phones were analysed in the study.
Even when minimally configured and with the handset idle, all phones analysed bar e/OS saw “substantial amounts” of information transmitted to the OS developer and to third parties such as Google, Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Facebook that have pre-installed system apps.
While occasional communication with OS servers is to be expected, the authors of the study say the observed data transmission goes well beyond this and “raises a number of privacy concerns”.
With the exception of e/OS, all of the handset manufacturers examined collect a list of all the apps installed on a handset. This is potentially sensitive information since it can reveal user interests such as mental health or dating apps. Users cannot turn this off.
Dr Paul Patras, associate professor at the University of Edinburgh, said user-data collection practices remain widespread despite protection laws for personal information adopted in several countries in recent years.
“More worryingly, such practices take place ‘under the hood’ on smartphones without users' knowledge and without an accessible means to disable such functionality. Privacy conscious Android variants are gaining traction though and our findings should incentivise market-leading vendors to follow suit,” Dr Patras said.
Third-party system apps such as Google, Microsoft, LinkedIn and Facebook, are pre-installed on most of the handsets and silently collect data, with no opt-out, the research found.