Mobile TrackingTechno-Legal MethodsCompliance Analysis
University of Oxford
Tracking, the large-scale collection of data about user behaviour, is commonplace in mobile apps. While some see tracking as a necessary evil to making apps available at lower prices by showing users personalised advertising and selling their data to third parties, tracking can also have highly disproportionate effects on the lives of individuals and society as a whole. For example, tracking has significant effects on the rights to privacy and data protection, but also on other fundamental rights, such as the right to non-discrimination (e.g. when data from mobile tracking is used in AI systems, such as targeted ads for job offers) or the right to free and fair elections (e.g. when political microtargeting is used, as in the Brexit vote or the Trump election). This thesis develops and applies techno-legal methods to study choice over app tracking at four levels: the impact of the GDPR (Chapter 4), consent to tracking in apps (Chapter 5), differences between Android and iOS (Chapters 6), and the impact of Apple’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT) framework (Chapter 7). While many previous studies looked at data protection and privacy in apps, few studies analysed tracking over time, took a compliance angle, or looked at iOS apps at scale. Throughout our analysis of apps, we find compliance problems within apps as regards key aspects of US, EU and UK data protection and privacy law, particularly the need to seek consent before tracking. For instance, while user consent is usually required prior to tracking in the EU and UK (under the ePrivacy Directive), our empirical findings suggest that tracking takes place widely and usually without users’ awareness or explicit agreement. This thesis contributes 1) a scalable downloading and analysis framework for iOS and Android privacy and compliance analysis (PlatformControl), 2) an improved understanding of the legal requirements and empirical facts regarding app tracking, 3) a comprehensive database of the relations between companies in the app ecosystem (X-Ray 2020), and 4) an Android app to support the easy and independent analysis of apps’ privacy practices (TrackerControl).