For millions of people buying inexpensive smartphones in developing countries where privacy protections are usually low, the convenience of on-the-go internet access could come with a hidden cost: preloaded apps that harvest users’ data without their knowledge.
One such app, included on thousands of Chinese-made Singtech P10 smartphones sold in Myanmar and Cambodia, sends the owner’s location and unique-device details to a mobile-advertising firm in Taiwan called General Mobile Corp., or GMobi. The app also has appeared on smartphones sold in Brazil and those made by manufacturers based in China and India, security researchers said.
Taipei-based GMobi, with a subsidiary in Shanghai, said it uses the data to show targeted ads on the devices. It also sometimes shares the data with device makers to help them learn more about their customers.
Smartphones have been billed as a transformative technology in developing markets, bringing low-cost internet access to hundreds of millions of people. But this growing population of novice consumers, most of them living in countries with lax or nonexistent privacy protections, is also a juicy target for data harvesters, according to security researchers.
Smartphone makers that allow GMobi to install its app on phones they sell are able to use the app to send software updates for their devices known as “firmware” at no cost to them, said GMobi Chief Executive Paul Wu. That benefit is an important consideration for device makers pushing low-cost phones across emerging markets.
“If end users want a free internet service, he or she needs to suffer a little for better targeting ads,” said a GMobi spokeswoman.
Upstream Systems, a London-based mobile commerce and security firm that identified the GMobi app’s activity and shared it with the Journal, said it bought four new devices that, once activated, began sending data to GMobi via its firmware-updating app. This included 15-digit International Mobile Equipment Identification, or IMEI, numbers, along with unique codes called MAC addresses that are assigned to each piece of hardware that connects to the web. The app also sends some location data to GMobi’s servers located in Singapore, Upstream said.
I like the way even GMobi thinks users getting targetted advertising are suffering!