Smartphone video games spy on you: here’s what happens

Research published in Vox has revealed that many games steal user data to resell it to third parties. How are they used and for what purpose?

Diverse studies on popular smartphone video games have shown that many of these apps spy on users. The games would send personal data to unidentified third parties, so much so that even the app developers wouldn't know exactly what information is being sent and to whom.

Among the incriminated apps would be Angry Birds. However, developer Rovio wouldn't know much about the identity of the phantom "third parties". A report published on Vox has analyzed the problem, revealing that most of the apps present in a smartphone communicate with third-party software that send advertisements like to the user while playing. Often these programs belong to the biggies in the industry, including Facebook, Google or Twitter. The research could not explain how these software collect the user's information.

Videogames and Personal Data

One of the first findings of the Vox report is that many smartphone video games contain within them codes inserted by other companies. This is because developers no longer build apps from scratch, but take existing ones and customize them. This saves time and money. Unfortunately, there's a price to pay: many smartphone games hide codes that communicate with external software, giving away users' personal data.

Studies have shown that games are the preferred channels for taking personal data and sending commercial messages without generating too much buzz. They are playful activities, and while they are being used the level of attention is very low. The more popular the games are, the more the risks are ignored. And yet, apps of this type have enormous weight for advertising companies: they are loved by advertisers who invest daily in more or less invasive advertising. The user on the other hand doesn't care or doesn't notice all the personal data he gives to the app and to third parties with which it is connected. He simply wants to start a new game without thinking too much about the consequences.

Also, the way a person plays can provide so much information about his mood, what he loves or what's going on in his life. Many studies have shown that people play more intensely when they are dieting or when they are depressed. As a result, many apps could exploit this data to send them an advertisement about a slimming product.

Anonymous data, are we sure?

Although the data taken from games should be anonymous, in reality it is not. A New York Times investigation found that it's very easy to de-anonymize information taken from apps. First of all, you can geolocate the data, thus tracing a person's location in space. On top of that, apps are used on smartphones and thus can trace phone numbers, emails, social profiles and whatnot.

Unfortunately, apps use this data for harmless purposes: mainly to send advertisements tailored to the player's interests and needs. This doesn't preclude the need to issue accurate privacy notices at the time of download.