• A study of just under a million apps by Oxford University researchers found that big tech companies can hoover up enormous amounts of data from third-party apps.
  • The study found that just under 90 percent of the apps analysed could send data to companies owned by Google's parent company Alphabet.
  • News apps and those aimed at children were found to be particularly tracker-heavy.
  • Google disputed the methodology used by the Oxford researchers.

Companies like Google and Facebook can hoover up vast quantities of data from third-party apps on people's smartphones, according to a detailed new study by the University of Oxford.

Researchers analysed the code of 959,000 apps on the US and UK Google Play stores. It revealed how huge numbers of them are set up to transfer data to big tech companies.

The study found that 88 percent of apps could ultimately hand over data to Alphabet, Google's parent company. This put Google top of the list of potential beneficiaries of third-party app data. Here's how others stack up:

  1. Alphabet: 88.44 percent
  2. Facebook: 42.55 percent
  3. Twitter: 33.88 percent
  4. Verizon: 26.27 percent
  5. Microsoft: 22.75 percent
  6. Amazon: 17.91 percent

Information that could be shared via third-party apps could include things like age, gender, and location, according to The Financial Times, which first spotted the Oxford research.

The researchers said this sort of data "enables construction of detailed profiles about individuals, which could include inferences about shopping habits, socio-economic class or likely political opinions."

They added: "These profiles can then be used for a variety of purposes, from targeted advertising to credit scoring and targeted political campaign messages."

The study said the median app could transfer data to five tracker companies, which could then ultimately pass the data along to firms like Google. Certain app genres were more tracking-intensive than others.

"In particular, news apps and apps targeted at children appear to be amongst the worst in terms of the number of third-party trackers associated with them," the paper said.

Apps targeted at children throw up some particularly thorny legal issues around data tracking, which the paper makes clear in its conclusion. "Some of the practices likely to be involved -- such as allowing profiling of children without attempting to obtain parental consent -- may be downright unlawful," it said.

Google challenges the Oxford study.

Google disputed the methodology used by the Oxford researchers.

"We disagree with the methodology and the findings of this study. It mischaracterises ordinary functional services like crash reporting and analytics, and how apps share data to deliver those services," a spokesman said in a statement to Business Insider.

"Across Google, and in Google Play, we have clear policies and guidelines for how developers and third-party apps can handle data and we require developers to be transparent and ask for user permission. If an app violates our policies, we take action."

Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO and chairman. Reuters

Lead researcher Reuben Binns responded: "We are not claiming that all instances of third-party tracking are unjustified, as crash reporting and analytics are useful tools for developers. Google offer third-party tracking capabilities for both purposes. However, their analytics tools are also often used by developers to measure the effectiveness of their targeted advertising."

Amazon and Twitter declined to comment. Facebook and Verizon did not immediately respond to Business Insider's request for comment.

The "excessive" thirst for data.

Privacy International said the Oxford research showed that the thirst for data among tech behemoths has become "excessive." Data Exploitation Programme Lead Frederike Kaltheuner told Business Insider:

"Third party tracking is the perfect example that shows how impossible it has become for any average user to fully understand what is happening to their data, let alone to opt-out or take control of their data.

"The ways in which Google, Facebook (and many others that most people have never even heard of) track people on the vast majority of apps they use is simply excessive. This is no longer about the need to collect data to show 'relevant ads' -- this is about profit maximisation at the expense of people's fundamental rights."

--This post originally appeared on  Business Insider.

Published on: Oct 23, 2018