Chinese Mobile Ads are Stealing Your Location, Phone Number, and Contacts

C. Custer
9:00 am on Nov 29, 2012

Chinese smartphone users agree: mobile ads are annoying. But did you know there’s also a decent chance those same ads are recording your every move, and maybe even selling your address book to whoever wants to pay for it? China’s official television network, CCTV, recently conducted an undercover investigation of mobile advertising in China, sending reporters posing as clients to mobile ad agencies to ask about the products they offered.

A representative of the Wabang mobile ad agency told reporters that they advertised mostly on pirated apps, telling the journalists that this wasn’t a copyright problem because it hadn’t actually developed the apps itself, it was just serving ads and then splitting the profits with the copycat developers. That’s pretty unethical, but it pales in comparison to what reporters heard from the Yinggao ad agency representative: “This thing [our platform] is like having a tracking device installed on you. Wherever you go, we’ll know about it; as long as you’re connected to the network we’ll know.” The Wabang rep said that they could track clients too.

In information is gathered via plug-ins that come bundled with the software served by these advertising agencies, plug-ins that run unnoticed in the background. They can share your location, your phone number, and other personal data with the ad agencies, and in fact, they can even share your address book.

But why would ad agencies want this information? A representative from Youmi, another mobile ad agency that told reporters it could mine personal data from smartphone users, said that information like users’ contacts and phone numbers was useful because “we also offer some other services, like pushmail and text messages.” In other words, they want your information so that they can make additional money spamming you and your friends via email and text message.

Citing rather vague “industry statistics,” CCTV’s report suggests that this kind of advertising is quite common, so if you’ve got a smartphone in China, there’s a decent chance you could be affected, especially if you’re using any pirated apps. If you’re concerned about this, I’d recommend deleting any apps from developers you don’t trust, and replacing any pirated apps you’ve got with the real thing. Sure, it might cost a little extra to buy the real version, but it’s more than worth the cost in peace of mind.

[CCTV via Sina Tech, Image source]

(And yes, we're serious about ethics and transparency. More information here.)

  • Bojun

    Sick. Is trash SMS and emails even effective marketing? Nonsense!

  • Patrick

    Interesting but not particularly surprising. China, like most Asian nations, lacks any comprehensive legal regulations regarding privacy, and trade in personal data is rampant. A person’s company IT manager is just as likely to be selling his databases as this sort of thing is to be happening. It’s a free-for-all out there.

    What’s more interesting, I think, is what the Chinese mobile users think of this practice. China, after all, is a highly collectivist culture which has very different ideas about Western-based normative values relating to the role of the individual within society, which includes privacy. In research I recently conducted in Vietnam (probably more similar to China than any other Asian nation), I found that Vietnamese netizens have utterly different conceptions of what privacy is from us Westerners. In a nationwide telephone survey, for example, only 9% said they were ‘strongly concerned’ about online personal privacy and more than half expressed little or no concern at all – even though they all know this sort of thing is going on. None viewed privacy as a fundamental human right, and they were overwhelmingly dismissive of legal solutions and website privacy policies – both, in their view, completely pointless. Most curious of all, they showed almost no concern about third-party scrutiny — by the government, by commercial operators, and the like — of things like browsing habits, purchase history, location history, etc.

    So when you write above that this practice is ‘unethical,’ well, that may be true for us, but not necessarily so for them. You and I would freak out about it, certainly. But the Chinese? For them, ethics may not even enter into it.

  • Candace

    For the benefit of your English-speaking audience, Wabang is more commonly known as Wooboo and Yinggao as WinAds. These are the English names that the companies themselves use.

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