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Data Detox Week 5: Should There be an App for That?

In May, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh will host The Glass Room, an interactive exhibit examining the ramifications of always-on, always-connected technology on personal privacy. As a lead up to this process, the Library is offering an abridged version of Data Detox, an 8-week series devoted to regaining control over your digital footprint. This is the fifth post in that series.

The Glass Room and Data Detox were developed by Mozilla and Tactical Technology.

logo for The Glass Room Digital Privacy project. A stylized box sits next to the text THE GLASS ROOM against a white background.

There’s an app for everything. They can be fun, they can be convenient, they can provide a quick solution in a pinch. But apps can also harvest a ton of personal data – regardless of whether or not the app is active.

Here’s a quick test. Pull up your app list and run a quick count. (Even the preloaded ones.) What does the total number of apps tell you about your risk of data exposure?

0-19 apps: Low exposure

20-39 apps: Moderate exposure

40-59 apps: High exposure

60+ apps: Very high exposure

If your app count is too high for comfort, it’s time to do an app cleanse. Use this exercise to think about which apps you never use, and which apps collect more data than necessary.

Step 1: Audit your apps.
Here are a few framing questions for you to ask when looking over your app list.

  1. Do you really need this app? Really?
  2. What data does this app collect?
  3. What company or group is behind the app? Do they have a privacy or data collection policy? Do you trust them with your data?
  4. What do you get out of the app? Is it worth the trade-off in privacy?
  5. Is there a better alternative out there?

If an app makes you uncomfortable with these answers, it’s time to let it go.

Step 2: Modify the apps you decide to keep.
Once you’ve decided which apps to keep, take a look at their privacy settings to make sure they’re not harvesting more information than you’re comfortable. On iOS devices, you can customize permissions under the Privacy menu. On Android devices, go to Settings –> Apps — > App permissions, and take a look at which app uses which data collection tool.

Step 3: Find a secure messaging app.
Tools like Skype and Facebook Messenger can expose huge amounts of data. Try out a more privacy-focused alternative (like Signal or Jitsi Meet), and find a friend to test it out with you.


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