Should You Share Your Address Book with Social Apps?
Imagine opening your front door to a clipboard-wielding stranger that bombards you with invasive questions. What is your name? When is your birthday? How about your email address? Most people would refuse to answer, consider calling the police, and probably leave the encounter a little shaken up. But have you ever thought that you might be sharing even more personal data every day without knowing?
Today, most people have ditched handwriting addresses and contact information for the digital alternative. Depending on how often we have a digital spring clean, address books on our phones or other devices may be full of contact information from years ago. Moreover, we may also note our relationship to the contact and a short description in the address book entry to remember how we met them, which may also include links to their websites or social media accounts.
Sharing personal information is often the only thing that stands between us and the latest app, and most people do not think twice about the risks of allowing unknown companies into their address books. Nowadays, we are so used to sharing information to get what we want, in this case for social apps, that providing just a few more details does not seem like a big deal. But it is, and it can be detrimental to our online safety.
Which data can social apps access when you share your address book?
We have all been there: hovering over our phones, trying to install the latest updates or download a new app, when a privacy notice flashes on the screen. How many times have you stopped to read every word before clicking agree? Apps usually ask permission to access your data only once. After that, the data they collect from your phone or smart device is shared willingly. These access requests are not always obvious and can be easy to miss if you impatiently skim over the small print to quickly download your favorite app.
Giving social apps access to your address book means handing over your contacts’ private details, such as their date of birth, address, work and home phone numbers, and social media accounts. And if that is not enough, consider how much other information is saved in your digital address book. In order to safely store sensitive details for later use, some people note their bank account details, door codes, or number lock combinations in their contact lists instead of writing them down. Although this may seem like a safer alternative, allowing social apps into your digital address book lets them see this information, too.
What is a shadow profile?
Did you know that some social media apps collect data about people that have not signed up for the platform? This means that whether or not you use the app, it may still hold details about you.
Then, when the time comes for you to create a social media profile, you may have been amazed at how many people you know seem to randomly pop up on your suggested friends list. Perhaps a random high school classmate or an old neighbor from years ago. If you are nodding your head, you may already have a shadow profile without knowing it. Sharing phone contacts with social media apps allows tech companies to extract valuable metadata. If a contact’s data is in your phone book, you will likely know them personally, allowing social media companies to construct a vast network of interconnected relationships.
Sharing content with social media apps helps to create a picture of who we are and the people we know, even if we do not have an account. Granting social apps access to small nuggets of personal information may not seem like much, but the more you share, the more data they hold about you. It is a catch twenty-two — we want the latest apps but must share sensitive information to get them.
How do social apps use and misuse our address book data?
We share data without a second thought, under the illusion that we are in control. But this is not always the case. Worryingly, it is unclear what information social apps actually collect. In a recent survey of 30 tech companies, seven were unwilling to disclose which data they collect, while a third did not respond at all.
So what are some potential risks of sharing private information with social apps?
- Some social apps may sell data to third-party advertisers or companies to continue providing a free service to users. This is done with or without user consent and means that personal information ends up in the hands of companies we have never even heard of.
- Tech companies store information on servers susceptible to hacking or data theft. If your details are leaked during data breaches, you may be vulnerable to phishing attacks or identity theft.
- Sharing data with social apps means they gain access to a treasure trove of sensitive information. When leaked or sold, scammers can use this information to create targeted advertisements or even reveal sensitive information online.
Ethical implications of social apps accessing address book data without consent
Four out of five respondents in a recent survey said they do not want personal information collected or shared without consent. But whether we like it or not, many tech companies take our sensitive data on a daily basis.
Data sharing gives rise to the ethical issue of consent. Much of the information in your phone does not belong to you, especially your friends’ contact details or social media account names. They give their details to you in good faith, perhaps not even considering you might share them with tech companies. If you were to hand your friends a list of the social apps that potentially hold their personal data, they would probably protest, yet we do so without even thinking.
Moreover, tech companies should be transparent and inform users which personal information may be collected when they sign up. Users should not have to wait until the latest data breach or leak to find their information has been shared. Transparency builds trust, and the companies behind social apps would benefit from having the reputation of being a trustworthy organization.
How do I stop sharing data?
Our addiction to social apps and the rapid growth of tech companies means we cannot do much about technology alone. Besides going off-grid, here are some tips for protecting your privacy on social apps.
- Think first. Some apps may require access to your camera, but do they really need to see your location or address book?
- Do not download apps that will not work without access to contact lists or other unnecessary data. If you have already installed them, then delete them. Yes, even your favorite socials.
- Go into apps and opt out of data sharing. However, if you agree to share data and opt out later, the information already shared will not be revoked. Most apps do not delete anything already collected without a written request to their customer support, and even then, it is difficult to prove whether they have deleted it. For peace of mind, it is better not to share anything in the first place.
- Protect yourself. Let others know about the dangers of sharing their address books so that your own data does not get leaked.
We live in an age where tech is king. We may think we control the data we share with social apps, but the reality is much different. Many social apps collect our data without consent, leaving us vulnerable to phishing scams and data hacks. Furthermore, it is often unclear which information companies collect and why. Although there are calls for tech companies to be more transparent about the information they collect, we should take steps to protect ourselves. Refusing to download apps that will not function without providing unnecessary data is a good start. Users can also opt out of data sharing if an app has already been downloaded. As many people may not know they are sharing sensitive information, it is wise to inform friends of the risks of sharing their address book with social apps. This protects you, too, as it will prevent your private data from being shared with unknown companies through friends.
Jeni is a translator and writer based in Taiwan. She is passionate about business development and loves helping companies enter international markets. She is fluent in English, German, and Mandarin Chinese, and combines these with her industry experience to provide practical market entry solutions.