News app on smartphone surrounded by news icons

The Privacy Risks of News Apps

Last edited: September 23, 2019
Reading time: 4 minutes, 58 seconds

We were once limited to the nightly news on a handful of stations. Then came CNN and the advent of the 24-hour news cycle. Yet today, we have more options than ever to not only get the news, but to customize the experience. News apps allow you to get news in areas of interest to you. But one of the drawbacks is that to customize your experience, these apps may collect personal information. What news apps do with your information could compromise your privacy in ways you don’t expect.

The Fine Print

List with magnifying glassNaturally, you probably don’t read all the fine print on privacy policies of the services you use online. Each service’s privacy policy can run to several thousand words. On top of that, there are frequent updates to the policy. Multiply that by only a few dozen different apps, websites, and different services and you could easily spend your life doing nothing more than reading privacy policies.

Unfortunately, what you don’t know can compromise your privacy. What’s hidden in the fine print may expose the details of your interests and activities to more people than you might imagine. And while your data is usually used for relatively harmless purposes such as targeted advertising, in the hands of a stalker or cyber-criminal, this information can be used to bring real harm to you personally.

News Apps Try to Identify You, The User

One of the most important aspects of targeted ads is being able to actually target individual users and narrow groups of users. To do so, news apps will collect information about you that identifies you. This allows the news app to build a more detailed profile about your interests that makes advertising more valuable. But how does a news app identify you in particular? One way is by having you log in to use the app. This will reveal information about the news stories and advertisements you interact with while on the app.

The more valuable information for building your profile is to be able to identify the sites you visit after you leave the news app, though. To do this, many news apps collect information about your digital fingerprint that allows them to track your activity after you leave the app.

News app Flipboard spells this out in their privacy policy. In their own words, “We receive some other information automatically when you use Flipboard. This includes data about your device, software, operating system, operating system-provided device IDs or user-specific advertising IDs for advertisement tracking”.

Feedly’s privacy policy spells out their collection of data in similar terms, “we gather certain information automatically and store it in log files. This information includes IP addresses, browser type, Internet service provider (“ISP”), referring/exit pages, operating system, date/time stamp, and clickstream data”. Feedly’s policy goes on to say that this is common behavior seen on most websites and services. This is certainly true, but no less reassuring.

Other news apps use cookies to identify users. For example, Circa’s privacy policy states, “We use cookies to help us tailor our site to your needs and to deliver a better, more personalized service”. When a news app uses cookies, you must agree to allow the app to install cookies on your device. While this policy seems more transparent, your information is still being collected and you cannot use the service apart from that collection.

How Tracking You Produces Revenue

In most news apps, you will see ads presented in a variety of ways. Banners across the top or bottom of the screen, ads that appear as you scroll through a story, or pop up ads that you must click to close. In almost all cases, the ads that you see are targeted specifically to show to users who match a specific profile. Showing the same ads to all users produces less revenue for advertisers. So, advertisers are willing to pay a high premium to information about the interests and activities of users to better target ads.

The Risks of Private Data Collection

You may think your interest in a particular news story, a simple web search, or the amount of time you spent looking at a particular ad reveal very little about you. But advertisers can use this type of information to create highly detailed profiles about you. Everything from your political affiliations, your income, your employment, and your opinions on most issues can be deduced from the information collected.

This information is routinely shared with advertisers. Advertisers often share information they have collected with the aps as well. Taken all together, this creates an incredibly detailed profile of who you are. And that information is shared so broadly that it can be all but impossible to catalogue all the different advertisers who have some level of access to your profile.

While many app makers take a proactive approach to security and maintaining your privacy, not all do. And even if the news app you use are secure. Once that information is shared with an advertiser, your data might be less secure. Data breaches occur on a regular basis and once your information is divulged, it cannot be hidden again.

Protect Your Privacy

Laptop With LockThere’s no reason to give up on your favorite news apps. But some reasonable precautions can help protect your privacy as well. Rather than connecting your login with your social media, login with email and a strong password. This keeps your social life separate with all the information available there.

Subscribing to a quality VPN service can greatly enhance your privacy. By connecting through an anonymous server, you can help prevent news apps from gaining critical information to build a targeted profile. By preventing news apps from accurately identifying you, your information is safeguarded. A VPN service offers some of the best protection for your privacy you can buy to protect you from privacy risks from news apps or any of the other threats online.

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