The underpinnings of how app store analytics platforms operate were exposed this week by BuzzFeed, which uncovered the network of mobile apps used by popular analytics firm Sensor Tower to amass app data. The company had operated at least 20 apps, including VPNs and ad blockers, whose main purpose was to collect app usage data from end users in order to make estimations about app trends and revenues. Unfortunately, these sorts of data collection apps are not new — nor unique to Sensor Tower’s operation.
Sensor Tower was found to operate apps such as Luna VPN, for example, as well as Free and Unlimited VPN, Mobile Data and Adblock Focus, among others. After BuzzFeed reached out, Apple removed Adblock Focus and Google removed Mobile Data. Others are still being investigated, the report said.
Apps’ collection of usage data has been an ongoing issue across the app stores.
Facebook and Google have both operated such apps, not always transparently, and Sensor Tower’s key rival App Annie continues to do the same today.
For Facebook, its 2013 acquisition of VPN app maker Onavo for years served as a competitive advantage. The traffic through the app gave Facebook insight into which other social applications were growing in popularity — so Facebook could either clone their features or acquire them outright. When Apple finally booted Onavo from the App Store half a decade later, Facebook simply brought back the same code in a new wrapper — then called the Facebook Research app. This time, it was a bit more transparent about its data collection, as the Research app was actually paying for the data.
But Apple kicked out that app, too. So Facebook last year launched Study and Viewpoints to further its market research and data collection efforts. These apps are still live today.
Google was also caught doing something similar by way of its Screenwise Meter app, which invited users 18 and up (or 13 if part of a family group) to download the app and participate in the panel. The app’s users allowed Google to collect their app and web usage in exchange for gift cards. But like Facebook, Google’s app used Apple’s Enterprise Certificate program to work — a violation of Apple policy that saw the app removed, again following media coverage. Screenwise Meter returned to the App Store last year and continues to track app usage, among other things, with panelists’ consent.
App Annie, a firm that directly competes with Sensor Tower, has acquired mobile data companies and now operates its own set of apps to track app usage under those brands.
In 2014, App Annie bought Distimo, and as of 2016 has run Phone Guardian, a “secure Wi-Fi and VPN” app, under the Distimo brand.
In 2015, App Annie acquired Mobidia. Since 2017, it has operated real-time data usage monitor My Data Manager under that brand, as well. The App Store description only offers the same vague disclosure, which means users aren’t likely aware of what they’re agreeing to.
The problem with apps like App Annie’s and Sensor Tower’s is that they’re marketed as offering a particular function, when their real purpose for existing is entirely another.
The app companies’ defense is that they do disclose and require consent during onboarding. For example, Sensor Tower apps explicitly tell users what is collected…….Read More>>