Bottom line: 2018 is becoming the year that data gathering practices are being put under the spotlight, thanks mainly to Facebook, but the problem isn't restricted to those of us in the West. In developing countries, where there are often few or no laws to protect citizens’ privacy, cheap smartphones are slurping user data and selling it to advertisers.
The Wall Street Journal reports that low-cost smartphones such as the Singtech P10, which is sold in Myanmar and Cambodia, come with preloaded apps that harvest user information. One example sends location and device details, including IMEI numbers and MAC addresses, to Taiwanese ad firm General Mobile Corp. (aka GMobi).
Smartphone companies allow GMobi’s apps on their phones because they can be used to send firmware updates out at no cost to the firms. The savings help device makers keep their prices low in developing markets.
“If end users want a free internet service, he or she needs to suffer a little for better targeting ads,” a GMobi spokeswoman told the WSJ.
While apps that collect user data for ad targeting purposes are certainly nothing new, they usually have to be installed by a user who then has to consent to the practice. Plus, they can be uninstalled at any time. As GMobi’s apps come preinstalled, removing them is a technical process, and many buyers are unaware that their personal data is being harvested.
GMobi works with over 100 smartphone makers, but the company wouldn’t specify which ones. Its website names Huawei, Xiaomi, and BLU. All three deny ever working with GMobi, though BLU did temporarily use its rival, Adup, which caused a lot of controversy at the time.