This article was written for the Inspired Research magazine of the Depatment of Computer Science of the University of Oxford. URL: https://www.cs.ox.ac.uk/innovation/inspiredresearch/InspiredResearch–summer23_FINAL_web.pdf
Tracking, the collection and sharing of behavioural data about individuals, is widely used by app developers to analyse and optimise apps and to show ads. It also is a significant and ubiquitous threat in mobile apps, and often violates data protection and privacy laws.
Previously, our research group led by Prof Sir Nigel Shadbolt analysed 1 million Android apps from the Google Play Store from 2017. We found that about 90% of those apps could share data with Alphabet (the parent company of Google), and 40% with Facebook (now renamed ‘Meta’). The data practices in children’s apps were particularly worrisome, which is why our research group – in response – established a dedicated research strand on Kids Online Anonymity & Lifelong Autonomy (KOALA), led by Dr Jun Zhao. Our findings led to major news coverage back then (including by the Financial Times). This underlines the extent to which those data practices violated individuals’ privacy expectations. Google even issued a public response to our findings, in which they tried to cast doubt over the validity of our (peer-reviewed) methodology.