Pushy Pushy Pushy

I like my phone. Perhaps the thing I like the most about it is that I rarely use it for phone calls. Instead I perform scads of other functions with it from keeping q calendar of appointments to piloting my R/C AR.Drone Quadricopter. I have even been known to peck out an entire Deludia article on it while entrapped within the confines of medical facility waiting rooms. I do use it for communication, after all, it’s a phone, but the vast majority of the communication is messages or emails. When I speak into my phone, there’s a 60% chance I’m using the Google voice search feature. As I use my phone for dozens of non-phone things like taking pictures, reading books, playing games, browsing the web or using my phone as a modem to connect my computer to the Internet when Comcast makes an oopsie, I do so through different applications, or apps. I get these apps from the Android Market –recently renamed to “Play” by Google for some reason. I’m not sure I get that change, Market tends to imply the availability of of all sorts of applications where “Play” sounds like a single application itself. But, never mind, the point is I get these apps from an app place on the Internet.

Many of the apps, remarkably, are absolutely free. When there is a charge, it’s usually under $5 and often under $2. But the most of my apps were free for the downloading. Just click and bing, bam, boom, there you go. Of the free apps, a few of them are ad supported That means that they show a little banner ad on the screen along with the app, or they make you look at an ad on a screen as the app starts up. For the most part I don’t mind these too much, especially of the app is one I use a lot like the alarm clock app I have. It’s great! I use it all the time and get to set one-time or repeating alarms and can even choose the sound it makes. (I have a very realistic rooster crow as my sound.) As I am setting the alarm, there will be a little ad on the screen suggesting that I run out and buy this or that as fast as my little legs will take me, a very fair price for the utility I get.

But lately have come the “Push” ads. These are adds that clog up your status bar and fill your message trays to overflowing, triggering an incoming message notification. These are annoying and have a cost to me on a few levels. The apps that use this kind of advertising slips them to you by misusing permissions you give it. For instance, an application may need to have permission to access the network and to start and stop an application for legitimate reasons for the app to work. But they misuse that permission to push advertising into your phone, no doubt thinking “What the heck, you probably have an unlimited data plan and tons of free space.” ┬áThat would be right after they thought that we wouldn’t mind if they collected private information about us from our phones far beyond the needs of their app to function. Push ads are not currently considered to be malware, which is to say that in legal terms they are within the law. As to whether they’re an ethical endeavor doesn’t have anything to do whether they’re legal, and so the question goes unanswered. Whether or not they’re annoying is a question that doesn’t need asking.

We are still just taking the first faltering steps into a digital age. While it appears that we are well into the brave new world, given the changes we’ve seen in society over the past decade, we’re actually just a couple of steps over the border on the way to virtual living. That means we’re kind of in a bushwhack, carving our way through a lot of fast growing newness. We need to keep our machetes in hand to slash away at those obstacles that rise to greet us on our way. As with our computers, we learned about the vulnerabilities that could be exploited and then we learned how to combat them. Most people employ firewalls and antivirus programs to protect themselves. With the rise in mobile popularity, again the vulnerabilities are being exploited and we have to learn to deal with these. In the case of push ads, the way to deal with those is to identify the companies who employ the push ad providers and remove their software.

With my phone getting inundated by push ads I went shopping for information on how to defeat these annoyances and found that two ways exist. One is to block the push ads so they can’t clog up your phone. There are applications available in the digital markets that will block these ads from your phone. That doesn’t stop the apps from collecting your personal data and sending it out, but it does prevent the resulting ads. There is also now software that will scan your phone or tablet and tell you what applications you have that use the push technology so you can see what they collect and what company the give it to, so you can decide whether to keep it or uninstall it. I used a product from a company called Lookout. The app is free and told me which of my programs had laid me low. It turned out that I had two apps that were guilty of exploiting the permissions I gave them and so I removed those apps. Obviously they weren’t deserving of my trust. They weren’t really all that important to me, and there were competing apps that did the same things that came from more trustworthy authors.

It’s obvious that we need to be vigilant about our personal information. As with our computers we need to be discerning about what we load on our phones and we need to be ready to act when we find our privacy violated. Fortunately, there’s an app for that.