Smartphones share our data every four and a half minutes, says study

Research claims there is little difference between Apple and Google when it comes to collecting certain data

Android handsets and iPhones share data with their respective companies on average every 4½ minutes, with data being sent back even when idle in a pocket or handbag, according to a new academic study.

The Trinity College Dublin research has raised fresh privacy concerns about smartphones, with the research claiming there was little difference between Apple and Google when it came to collecting certain data.

The study, which was published by Prof Doug Leith at Trinity's Connect Centre, claimed iPhones offered no greater privacy than Google devices.

However, the study noted that Google handsets collected “a notably larger volume of handset data than Apple” with 1MB of data being sent from idle Google Pixel handsets every 12 hours, compared with 52KB sent from the iPhone.

Among the data potentially sent back by the handsets were the insertion of a SIM and handset details such as the hardware serial number, IMEI, Wifi MAC address and the phone number.

“I think most people accept that Apple and Google need to collect data from our phones to provide services such as iCloud or Google Drive. But when we simply use our phones as phones – to make and receive calls and nothing more – it is much harder to see why Apple and Google need to collect data,” said Prof Leith.

“Yet in this study we find that Apple and Google collect a wealth of information in precisely that situation. It seems excessive, and it is hard to see why it is necessary.”

Prof Leith said it was disappointing to see so much data being collected by Apple in particular as the company had talked much about user privacy in the past.

He said the devices not only collected data about handset activity, but also about handsets nearby; when a user connects to a wifi network the WiFi MAC addresses of other devices on the network are sent to Apple.

“The WiFi MAC address identifies a device on a WiFi network and so, for example, uniquely identifies your home router, cafe hotspot or office network. That means Apple can potentially track which people you are near to, as well as when and where. That’s very concerning.”

He said users cannot opt out of the data collection.

Concerns

The research highlighted some major concerns over the collection of such data, noting that device data could be linked to other data sources, including web browsing and shopping purchases.

“This research outlines how smartphones work,” a spokesperson for Google said. “Modern cars regularly send basic data about vehicle components, their safety status and service schedules to car manufacturers, and mobile phones work in very similar ways. This report details those communications, which help ensure that iOS or Android software is up to date, services are working as intended, and that the phone is secure and running efficiently.”

Apple has not yet commented on the study.