What is an Android app module
The information portal for safe cell phone use
Practical: building blocks for app functions
Modules are ready-made software components that developers can build into an app. In the jargon, such a component is called SDK, short for "Software Development Kit". An SDK usually takes on a standard function, such as displaying images or letting the user select a date.
Many developers provide an SDK so that others can integrate it into their apps. The use of such function modules is a sensible concept: the wheel does not have to be reinvented every time, but existing knowledge can be passed on as a finished component.
In this way, errors can be corrected and functions added, and each developer can concentrate on what he or she can do best.
Helpful to critical: building blocks for analysis
One category of these components are so-called analysis modules. They do not directly contribute to the functionality of the app, but are still often useful. They should make errors in the app understandable so that developers can fix the cause more easily.
However, the line between analysis and marketing is fluid. Analysis services are also used to measure whether an advertising campaign was successful or to find out which advertising someone is interested in. Classic services for crash analysis, for example, collect a lot of technical data. User and marketing analysis services also collect content-related data, for example what someone clicked on.
Analysis modules are provided by companies that usually do the analysis. The developers then see a prepared result. The user data itself, which an analysis module reads, ends up with the analysis company. As a rule, you will not find out which analysis services are integrated in an app.
From a data protection perspective, analysis modules are a gray area. It is entirely legitimate and permissible for an app provider to hire an analysis company. In the process, a contract is concluded; from a legal point of view, the provider remains the "owner" of the data collected. He is still responsible for their safety and lawful use. Some analysis services - most of which are chargeable - work this way, for example the German provider "Adjust".
The matter is less clear with other companies, for example with Facebook's free analysis service, "Facebook Analytics". Due to Facebook's data protection regulations, it must be assumed here that Facebook will also link the data collected for analysis to existing user profiles for its own interests.
So it depends on the choice of service provider.
App tracking via advertising modules
Most developers want to be paid to work on an app. Unfortunately, very few users are willing to spend money on it. This is where advertising modules come into play.
Many developers finance themselves through advertising. According to a 2016 study, more than 41 percent of all apps in the Google Play Store contain at least one SDK for advertising. It is quite common for advertising modules from different providers to be found in one app.
Advertising modules are provided by so-called advertising networks. These are companies that have specialized in distributing advertising in a targeted manner with the help of user profiles. They therefore always try to find out whether they already have a profile for a particular person. To do this, they request an identification number from the device. For iOS this is the Apple Ad ID, for Android the Google Advertising ID.
If there is a profile with the corresponding advertising ID in the database, users will be shown appropriate advertising. At the same time, advertising networks have an interest in adding to their profiles. That is why they try to collect as much additional information as possible about the users: For example, which app someone is currently using, which device, from which location and much more.
Here, too, the following applies: As a rule, you will not find out the name of the integrated advertising networks.
Free modules and their price
Modules that do not contribute to the actual functionality of apps - i.e. analysis and advertising modules - have their price. First of all, each module requires storage space. Second, analysis and advertising modules require additional data volume: statistics and other information must be uploaded, advertising must be downloaded.
In some apps, 90 percent of the data traffic is only due to such modules. In addition, computing capacity, memory and battery are required. And: Some of these “third party helpers” seem to be quite greedy for data. Often they do a lot more than the developers intended.
Some analysis and advertising modules are known to aggressively invade the privacy of users - and to behave otherwise annoyingly, such as displaying pop-ups and inappropriate advertising.
In addition, they often serve as a gateway for malware. On the one hand because of programming errors, on the other hand because the operators of the advertising networks usually do not check whether the advertisements they distribute may contain malware.
Big companies, tons of analysis
Practically every advertising module accesses at least one “identifier”, ie information that can be used to assign a user in a profile. Mostly this is the advertising ID (for Apple or Google). Advertisers who adhere to the requirements of the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) do not ask for any further identification numbers.
In the case of Android devices, the Android ID is also often transmitted, less often the IMEI, WiFi MAC address, serial number or telephone number. It is not uncommon for this data to be transmitted completely unencrypted and in plain text - a hit for anyone who “records” on the go.
If the same SDK is used in several of the installed apps, extensive user profiles can be created from the collected data. The individual collections can be easily linked via the recorded identifiers. This also applies to analysis modules.
A study by the University of Oxford analyzed one million Android apps and concluded that the majority of apps (88 percent) provide a data connection with Google via built-in modules, almost half (43 percent) with Facebook and a third (34 percent) with Twitter.
Developers choose themselves
What hardly anyone realizes: All permissions of the actual app also apply to the modules of an app. For example, if an app has access to the address book, the built-in modules also have this access.
Since in most cases the source code of the modules is not available, developers cannot check what a module actually does, but have to rely on the manufacturer's information.
However, there are often clear indications: Some modules require many authorizations. In order for a developer to be able to integrate this module, the app must be programmed in such a way that it receives the authorizations that the module requires.
So programmers will definitely notice when a large amount of data is potentially read out. Anyone who integrates such modules does not take the privacy of users very seriously.
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