Security researchers have uncovered privacy shortcomings in the mobile applications offered by both the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney presidential campaigns.
The campaign teams of the incumbent US President and his Republican challenger have each released apps for both iOS and Android, in good time for the election on November 6.
Experts at GFI Software looked at the Android versions of both apps, discovering both to be surprisingly invasive.
For example, each of the apps features the ability to cross-post on users' behalf and report back to base. One app even has a tool to encourage users to go canvassing on behalf of the candidate, which in GFI's test directed Obama supporters to an unsafe part of a US town – just north of downtown Clearwater, Florida.
Both Android apps slurp the details of users' contacts and log location data, as a rundown by GFI on both apps and the permissions they seek explains. The Romney app even requests permission to record audio for unspecified (and so-far unactivated) purposes.
The GOP app gives users the option to either sign up to create a “MyMitt” account or connect with Facebook. Information such as your name, email address, password, home address with zip code, and an optional mobile phone number will be requested in the first scenario.
The Facebook version grants permission for the app to post on the user's behalf – as well as to collect data available from their Facebook friends. The app also collects other information (device ID, carrier, phone number, GPS location, cell location and package info on other installed apps). Much of this is covered in the terms of service fine-print, if users choose to read it.
The Obama for America app obliges users to consent to an agreement allowing the app to gather information, such as GPS and mobile cell location. The app bundles the ability to access a user’s phone contact list (names and numbers), call and message logs, data on currently installed apps, and contents of the SD card. In addition, the app logs user location information.
Users of Obama for America gain the ability to access information on registered voters near them via a feature called Canvass Neighborhood. Data such as registered voter’s first name and last initial, age and home addresses can be viewed.
With smartphone apps playing such a key role in voter engagement in the US, the way that both campaigns are using apps to collect data and deep dive into users' devices and data is quite concerning from a privacy perspective, GFI Software concludes.
"The lesson here for users is that it’s their responsibility to know what the apps on their mobile devices are doing and what personal information they are divulging about themselves and potentially their contacts and social network connections," Randall Griffith, junior threat researcher at GFI Software writes.
"Even reputable sources like the official presidential campaigns may encroach on what many of us consider a reasonable expectation of privacy and limitations on data collection. Read the fine print before installing any app.
"Ultimately, it comes down to this: If you value your privacy, be careful what you download to your mobile device, and do what you can to educate yourself about how your publicly available information (in this case your voter registration) is being used," she added. ®