Budget Android smartphones have been found to siphon off user data in developing countries. The lack of strong privacy laws and cheap access to on-the-go internet access seems to be coming at a huge cost – preloaded apps that harvest user data without their knowledge.
According to The WSJ, a Chinese-made Singtech P10 budget smartphone sold in Myanmar and Cambodia has been abusing user privacy. The report states that the device sends the owner’s location and unique device details like IMEI numbers, MAC addresses to a General Mobile Corp., a mobile advertising firm in Taiwan. Security researchers state the app has also appeared on smartphones sold in Brazil, and those made by manufacturers based out of China and India.
Taipei-based GMobi, which also has a subsidiary in Shanghai and New Delhi, claims to use the data to show targeted ads on the devices. It also shares the data collected with device makers to help them learn more about their customers. The GMobi app makes it easier for smartphone makers to send software updates, also known as firmware at no cost to them and is a reason why they let GMobi to install its apps on their devices.
“If end users want a free internet service, he or she needs to suffer a little for better targeting ads,” a GMobi spokeswoman told WSJ.
Many popular smartphone apps collect data such as contacts and even locations to enhance user experience. Most of these apps take consent from the device owner before start collecting user data. These apps can also be uninstalled from the device at any time, and they will be automatically restricted from data collection or retention.
GMobi’s software, on the other hand, comes pre-installed on new smartphones out-of-the-box, and can only be removed with some kind of technical expertise. On its website, GMobi lists Huawei, Xiaomi and BLU has its device partners. However, all the three companies told the publication that they have never worked with the company.
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GMobi is not alone in this space. MoMagic, an Indian digital advertising firm that lists handset makers such as Xiaomi, Micromax, Intex, Panasonic and Sony as partners, also offers firmware-updating software similar to GMobi. A Xiaomi spokesperson told the company does not work with MoMagic, while Intex confirmed that it uses the firmware-update tool but does not collect user information.
Since the breakout of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, it has become evident that there are a number of tools for our online presence but not much to protect ourselves in the digital space. These budget phones which serve as a gateway to consume data and interact online seem to be causing more harm than good.