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Popular iOS Apps Record All In-App Activity Causing Privacy, Data Security, And Other Issues

As the internet has evolved, the user testing and market research practices have also evolved. This may surprise consumers. TechCrunch reported that many popular Apple mobile apps record everything customers do with the apps:

"Apps like Abercrombie & Fitch, Hotels.com and Singapore Airlines also use Glassbox, a customer experience analytics firm, one of a handful of companies that allows developers to embed “session replay” technology into their apps. These session replays let app developers record the screen and play them back to see how its users interacted with the app to figure out if something didn’t work or if there was an error. Every tap, button push and keyboard entry is recorded — effectively screenshotted — and sent back to the app developers."

So, customers' entire app sessions and activities have been recorded. Of course, marketers need to understand their customers' needs, and how users interact with their mobile apps, to build better products, services, and apps. However, in doing so some apps have security vulnerabilities:

"The App Analyst... recently found Air Canada’s iPhone app wasn’t properly masking the session replays when they were sent, exposing passport numbers and credit card data in each replay session. Just weeks earlier, Air Canada said its app had a data breach, exposing 20,000 profiles."

Not good for a couple reasons. First, sensitive data like payment information (e.g., credit/debit card numbers, passport numbers, bank account numbers, etc.) should be masked. Second, when sensitive information isn't masked, more data security problems arise. How long is this app usage data archived? What employees, contractors, and business partners have access to the archive? What security methods are used to protect the archive from abuse?

In short, unauthorized persons may have access to the archives and the sensitive information contained. For example, market researchers probably have little or no need to specific customers' payment information. Sensitive information in these archives should be encrypted, to provide the best protection from abuse and from data breaches.

Sadly, there is more bad news:

"Apps that are submitted to Apple’s App Store must have a privacy policy, but none of the apps we reviewed make it clear in their policies that they record a user’s screen... Expedia’s policy makes no mention of recording your screen, nor does Hotels.com’s policy. And in Air Canada’s case, we couldn’t spot a single line in its iOS terms and conditions or privacy policy that suggests the iPhone app sends screen data back to the airline. And in Singapore Airlines’ privacy policy, there’s no mention, either."

So, the app session recordings were done covertly... without explicit language to provide meaningful and clear notice to consumers. I encourage everyone to read the entire TechCrunch article, which also includes responses by some of the companies mentioned. In my opinion, most of the responses fell far short with lame, boilerplate statements.

All of this is very troubling. And, there is more.

The TechCrunch article didn't discuss it, but historically companies hired testing firms to recruit user test participants -- usually current and prospective customers. Test participants were paid for their time. (I know because as a former user experience professional I conducted such in-person test sessions where clients paid test participants.) Things have changed. Not only has user testing and research migrated online, but companies use automated tools to perform perpetual, unannounced user testing -- all without compensating test participants.

While change is inevitable, not all change is good. Plus, things can be done in better ways. If the test information is that valuable, then pay test participants. Otherwise, this seems like another example of corporate greed at consumers' expense. And, it's especially egregious if data transmissions of the recorded app sessions to developers' servers use up cellular data plan capacity consumers paid for. Some consumers (e.g., elders, children, the poor) cannot afford the costs of unlimited cellular data plans.

After this TechCrunch report, Apple notified developers to either stop or disclose screen recording:

"Protecting user privacy is paramount in the Apple ecosystem. Our App Store Review Guidelines require that apps request explicit user consent and provide a clear visual indication when recording, logging, or otherwise making a record of user activity... We have notified the developers that are in violation of these strict privacy terms and guidelines, and will take immediate action if necessary..."

Good. That's a start. Still, user testing and market research is not a free pass for developers to ignore or skip data security best practices. Given these covert recorded app sessions, mobile apps must be continually tested. Otherwise, some ethically-challenged companies may re-introduce covert screen recording features. What are your opinions?

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