Which Leaks More Personal Info: Apps or Websites?

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Are you better off using those free services' apps or their websites? Researchers have an answer.

One way some free online services might finance their operations is by sharing your personal information with third parties like advertisers and data analytic companies.

So are you better off using those free services’ apps or their websites? That’s the question researchers at Northeastern University’s College of Computer and Information Science recently set out to answer. And they concluded that websites leak more information than apps 40 percent of the time.

They will present their find­ings — now in a paper titled “Should You Use the App for That?” — in November at the 2016 Internet Mea­sure­ment Con­fer­ence, in Santa Monica, Cal­i­fornia.

Apps have the potential to access more personally identifiable information, or PII — meaning identifying data like your name, location or password. So the researchers expected apps would leak more PII.

They also found that the type of information leaked varied based on the platform. Websites leak names and locations more often, for example, and only apps leak a unique identifying number.

Whether you’re better off using a free service’s app or website depends on several factors, including the individual service and which of your personal identifiers you want to guard most closely.

To help you answer that question for yourself, the researchers created an interactive website called “App vs. Web.”

Lead researcher David Choffnes, an assistant professor at Northeastern University’s College of Computer and Information Science, explains:

“There’s no one answer to which plat­form is best for all users. We wanted people to have the chance to do their own explo­ration and under­stand how their par­tic­ular pri­vacy pref­er­ences and pri­or­i­ties played into their inter­ac­tions online.”

The website lists several dozen services ranging from Airbnb to Zillow in a drop-down menu.

To use the website, you select a service, indicate whether you have an Android or Apple iOS device, and indicate how much you care about the following PII:

  • Birthday
  • Device information
  • Email address
  • Gender
  • Location
  • Name
  • Phone number
  • Login username
  • Password
  • Unique identifiers

The App vs. Web website will tell you whether you’re better off using a specific free service’s app or its website based on the information you input.

What do you make of these findings? Share your thoughts below or on Facebook.

Stacy Johnson

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