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Contributing writer

Google Play shares too much personal info, app developer says

Feb 15, 20135 mins
Google PlayMobile SecurityPrivacy

Some defend Google, but privacy experts say it's a problem

Google is in the information business. But one app developer is accusing it of providing him with “TMI” — too much information — about his customers. And this sharing of user information from Google Play has reignited an online debate over privacy protection and notification online.

Dan Nolan, an Android app developer, wrote in a blog post on Wednesday that he found what he called “an insane thing” when he logged into his Google Play account to update payment information.

Nolan had created the Android version of a “Paul Keating Insult Generator,” after noticing that the iOS version had hit No. 1 in the Australian App Store. Paul Keating is a former Australian prime minister.

In his post, Nolan warned his customers, “If you bought the app on Google Play (even if you cancelled the order) I have your email address, your suburb, and in many instances your full name.”

Every app sold through Google Play [] gives the developer this information, he wrote, “with no indication that this information is actually being transferred.”

“[It’s] a massive oversight by Google,” he wrote. “Under no circumstances should I be able to get the information of the people who are buying my apps unless they opt into it and it’s made crystal clear to them that I’m getting this information.”

Indeed, part of Google’s privacy policy says, “We will share personal information with companies, organizations or individuals outside of Google when we have your consent to do so. We require opt-in consent for the sharing of any sensitive personal information.”

But not everybody thinks this is a problem — any more than any customer giving a merchant his name, address, phone number and credit card number when making an online purchase.

Brian Donohue wrote at Threatpost that Google had no official comment, but he quoted an unnamed source saying this has been a long-time policy and is necessary for tax purposes because the app developers are the so-called “merchants of record,” unlike Apple’s App Store, where Apple is the merchant of record, and therefore its developers don’t need user information.

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The source also said Google’s Developer Distribution Agreement requires developers to protect the private information of users, and puts the notification burden on them. “[You] must make the users aware that the information will be available to your Product, and you must provide legally adequate privacy notice and protection for those users,” it reads, in part.

Bogdan “Bob” Botezatu, a senior e-threat analyst at Bitdefender said an email address is needed for the vendor to get in touch with a user if a side issue, like a code compromise or data breach occurs. “Other personal information is necessary for billing and records keeping,” he said.

“[This] is a transaction between the application vendor and the customer, while Google is just acting as a payment processor and delivery channel,” he said.

But other privacy experts say the practice puts privacy at risk. “Supplying personal information to apps vendors is invasive in significant ways because of the way the information could be used, shared, and possibly monetized, all within the online environments in which they are used,” said Rebecca Herold, CEO of The Privacy Professor. “[Apps] can also link to so many other entities in ways that other vendors of software you download onto your hard drive do not, and in many cases cannot.”

Herold said Nolan is being “completely reasonable” to assert that users should be notified by Google Play that their information is going to the third-party developer. “Providing clear and conspicuous notice for how a site is sharing information is a basic, internationally accepted, privacy practice,” she said.

Ben Edelman, an associate professor at Harvard Business School who has exposed privacy violations in the Google Toolbar and on Facebook, notes that Google informs those buying magazine subscriptions that their information, including “a unique identifier,” is being shared with the publisher. “But Google says nothing similar about ordinary app downloads,” he said. “In this context, a user would reasonably conclude that installing an app does not share name, email address, or other details with the app developer.”

“Part of the rationale for buying via Google, in a marketplace Google purportedly supervises and runs, is to get protections including trust and privacy,” Edelman said. “Google has been quick to emphasize those benefits when it suits them — touting Google Checkout’s ability to withhold user details from a merchant. It would be disingenuous for Google to disavow those benefits now.”

Even if Google Play’s Terms of Service puts the responsibility on developers to notify users that their information has been shared, Herold said that does not let Google off the hook. “What is Google doing to ensure the vendors are actually following through?” she asked. “Do they actually review the notices that the vendors are providing to the apps users? What will they do to vendors they determine are not adhering to the Terms of Service? Will they cut all ties with them, or turn a blind eye? Also, how do they define ‘legally adequate privacy notice’?”

Samantha Murphy at Australia’s The Age quotes Chester Wisniewski, a senior security advisor at Sophos, who observes that “users who buy something with Google Play are probably assuming they are doing business with Google — not the developer.”

Wisniewski said he saw no reason for panic, but it is a worry. “It’s probably something Google should revisit,” he said. “A cybercriminal could create an app just to get data, and that is what Google should want to avoid.”