Reality Check On Those 'Data-Mining' Android Apps

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If you've read much Android news over the past few days, you've probably seen some pretty shocking stuff. You know, things like:

"Over 1m Android Users' Details Compromised Thanks To Malicious App"

"Data Stealing Android App Fooled the Masses"

And my personal favorite:

"Android Gets Hacked Again, Millions Affected Unknowingly, Advantage: Apple"

These headlines, as you probably know, are talking about a series of Android wallpaper apps mentioned in a report by mobile security firm Lookout. Lookout (which, it should be noted, markets its own security app for Android) presented the information at the Blackhat security conference in Las Vegas last week.

Unfortunately, much of what the company found has been twisted and manipulated into some very misleading -- and very inaccurate -- claims.

[See related:Review: Motorola Droid X [This story is from the new Android Power blog at Computerworld. Follow@AndroidPower on Twitter or subscribe via RSS to make sure you don't miss a beat.]

Dissecting the Android App Alert

According to Lookout, some wallpaper apps within the Android Market were "gathering seemingly unnecessary data" from users' devices. This data included phone numbers, subscriber ID numbers, and voicemail numbers. The applications, Lookout says, were transmitting the data and storing it on a server in China.

It's hard to deny that that sounds slightly shady. Of course, it's nothing compared to how the story initially sounded when tech blog VentureBeat reported it. VentureBeat said the Android wallpaper apps were harvesting all sorts of other, far more sensitive details -- things like users' browsing histories, text messages, and passwords. That information is flat-out wrong; VentureBeat has since retracted it. But the story continues to live on, thanks to the countless blogs that picked up on VentureBeat's report without any independent confirmation. The echo chamber effect can be a dangerous force.

But back to the data these wallpaper apps actually were collecting: What was going on? According to the apps' developer, Jackeey Wu, the collection was all being done in the name of legitimate functionality.

In a conversation I had with Wu over e-mail, he told me the information he stored was used to identify a device so the application could keep track of its user's preferences.

"They can favorite the wallpapers more conveniently and resume [their] favorites after system-resetting or changing the phone," Wu says.

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