The Washington Post columnist Geoffrey Fowler is reporting that he ran a test showing that on an average night, his iPhone sent data to over 5,000 trackers. All while he slept. 

Considering that one of Apple's biggest promises is that it protects your privacy and limits the off boarding of your personal information, that's a lot of data. It's especially unsettling when you realize what is being sent. Depending on the tracker, third-party services are collecting information like your IP address, email address, device fingerprint, phone number, and even GPS coordinates.

Once you know, it's actually pretty creepy to think about what goes on inside your phone, and how much of your personal information is leaking out.

Apps consume your personal information.

Obviously, many of the apps you use every day require some of this information in order to work. Food delivery service DoorDash obviously needs to know where you are in order to provide you with options for delivery. But what about the nine trackers that Fowler says were sending data back to places like Google and Facebook? 

Companies use this information to target ads and measure their effectiveness. For example, DoorDash might serve you ads on Facebook, and it uses trackers to measure whether or not you clicked on one of those ads, or whether you were even shown one before opening the app. It might also then target you later with ads on Facebook based on your last order.

I think most of us get that ads are an accepted part of smartphone apps and the internet in general, but how many of us are comfortable with services we've never heard of knowing things like where we're located, and who we are?

One of the biggest reasons this is a story is that Apple has long made a point that its services don't need your personal information to work. Apple Pay and Messages and iCloud encryption happens on the device, and your private information stays on your device. That's great, but Apple could certainly do more on two fronts.

What Apple should do.

First, it should do a better job of educating you on what information is being used. Requiring app developers to disclose when trackers are being used would certainly cause many of us to think twice about whether having lunch delivered is worth turning over our privacy to an unknown third-party service. Especially one we have no way of holding accountable. 

Second, Apple should do a better job of giving you options to control your data. It does allow you to turn off "Background App Refresh," which is what allows apps to send data even when you're not using the app. In addition to better controlling the flow of information, turning that off also saves data that can add up if you're not on an unlimited plan with your mobile carrier.

Apple gives you the choice of turning it off globally, or selecting which apps have the ability to send information while in the background. I turn it off for most except those like mail, or file sync apps.

Apple also allows you to "limit ad tracking," although the option is buried in settings, under "Privacy," and then "Advertising." That feature reduces the ability of advertisers to target you based on your activity in apps and online, though you'll still see advertisements. 

Finally, Fowler conducted the test with the privacy firm Disconnect, which makes the Privacy Pro VPN app that shows you what trackers are trying to send your information. It also gives you the option to block them and enable general settings to control information sent to common services from Facebook, Google, and even device fingerprinting. 

I tried out the app while writing this column, and in the short time it took to write a little over 600 words, the app blocked over 40 trackers. 

Published on: May 28, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.