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Here’s What Happens When You Ask Smartphone Users To Read Their App Permissions Out Loud

Those innocent-seeming Angry Birds are tracking your whereabouts.

Angry Birds knows where you are, and so does Fruit Ninja. The apps both track location–something that you might not necessarily know if you haven’t taken the time to read through a lengthy user agreement and list of permissions before starting to play.

In a new video, sponsored by Blackphone, a new fully encrypted smartphone and OS, artist Ivan Cash asked people on the street to take a minute to find out what’d they agreed to in order to use certain apps on their smartphones.

“A lot of people know that their data is being compromised in some way,” Cash says. “But we felt that it would be powerful to have people just read out the actual verbatim language they’re agreeing to.”

Cash was inspired in part by Citizenfour, the documentary about Edward Snowden. “It really hit home for me,” he says. “For him to explain the level of detail in which the government can isolate you, and every phone call can be transcribed, every email and text can be taken. They can search back years.”

Apps, of course, are one of the tools the government can use. Last year, Snowden leaked a document that explains how the NSA can use Angry Birds and other apps to track someone. And even if the government isn’t analyzing that data–from your contact list to text messages to your location, depending on what the app collects–advertisers are.


What should app-addicted smartphone users do? “It’s obviously a compromise–no one has time to read through an entire terms and conditions,” says Cash. He recommends sites like PrivacyGrade.org, which lets you search for any app and find out about its privacy policy. Experts also recommend updating your OS as often as possible, deleting any apps you no longer use, and being extra-careful about using public Wi-Fi networks.

Ultimately, Cash is hoping that some companies will start to shift business models, so they don’t have to track every personal detail to sell to advertisers. “At this point in time it’s a compromise,” he says. “We’re trading our privacy for a lot of free services like Gmail or Facebook. I would be interested in paying for those services–I would be willing to pay five bucks a month for Facebook if I knew they weren’t tracking or storing my data. I think that’s one realistic alternative.”

“I’m not an expert on this, and I’m not pretending to be,” he adds. “But what I try to do with projects is raise awareness about issues that are important to me and I think should be conversations that maybe aren’t happening as often as they should. Decisions that are being made in this next decade may very well reflect how we live in the future.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Co.Exist who focuses on sustainable design. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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