Apps Sharing Data with Facebook

UPDATE 2018-01-02: privacy.com responded with the following: “I’ve shared this with the team and will ensure we investigate this thoroughly and remove it in the next iOS deploy.”


UPDATE 2019-01-06: Privacy International has written a very similar post about Facebook Tracking on Android, available here. Thanks to Andy for the tip.


As I noted in my recent post about Mint sending data to Facebook, I discovered several POST requests going to graph.facebook.com containing data about my device, among other things, despite having no Facebook account, using no Facebook services personally, and blocking all traffic to *.facebook.com from my home network. I learned shortly after that post that many apps on my device are making such requests, and decided to investigate a bit further.

Disclaimer: I was not authenticated in all apps when running these tests, so it’s very possible there’d be more requests once I authenticate. This is the result of very manual, non-lab-like research. I’m sure I missed some things.

Facebook Software Development Kit

The iOS Facebook SDK, with user-agent FBiOSSDK, is made available to any developer who wishes to use Facebook’s services in their app. Such services include push notifications, the horrifying “login using facebook” oauth function, App Events, Facebook Analytics, and Graph API.

Dependencies

Possibly unbeknownst to app developers using this SDK, since developers rarely read terms when using open source libraries, and because we live in an era where “don’t re-invent the wheel” is synonymous with “I don’t want to do that myself,” Facebook makes clear in their README that:

By enabling Facebook integrations, including through this SDK, you can share information with Facebook, including information about people’s use of your app. … These integrations also enable us and our partners to serve ads on and off Facebook.

My initial theory was that Intuit (via Mint’s iOS app) was providing data to Facebook so they could better serve ads. That may still be the case, but after seeing a great number of other applications making similar requests, I now wonder if most are doing this out of sheer neglect. After all, how else would developers of possibly millions of apps know that their dependencies included a module just for left padding a string?

So if an app you use, for example, allows logging in via Facebook, or maybe has a button to share the app with your Facebook friends, odds are good the app includes this library, and is sending Facebook your data just by being bootstrapped when the application launches.

Data Sent

The data sent to Facebook seems to vary slightly by application and SDK version, which makes sense given the SDK allows sending custom attributes with each request.

Much of this data is mostly harmful: iOS version, screen size, the bundle ID of the application. But some of this could easily be used to identify patterns, or infer details, about you personally.

All Requests

All requests that I identified sent the following (among other fields):

advertising_id

Back in the day, iOS provided a globally unique identifier to all apps to identify which device the app was running on. Apple removed this in favor of a new identifier they call the advertising_id. This value differs between apps, so it is of limited use for identifying you as a human. However, if this isn’t reset often, it is enough for the application – and now Facebook – to track your behavior across launches.

Apple recently found this was being exploited and not used for its intended purpose, so they started pulling apps from the App Store that used the advertising ID but never showed ads. I’m not sure how some of the apps currently sending this to Facebook are getting around this, because the ones I’ve noted do not serve ads.

I strongly recommend you disable your device’s advertising ID by going to Settings > Privacy > Advertising, and enable “Limit Ad Tracking”. If you’d prefer to leave ad tracking as is, I suggest you periodically reset your advertising identifier.

POST /activities

This was the most common request, as it was made multiple times when applications were in memory.

anon_id

Each POST /activities request contains a field called anon_id, or old_anon_id, which is a UUID, prefixed with XZ, that appears to be unique to each application.

I did a little digging through the source and found that this value is persisted locally in a file called com-facebook-sdk-PersistedAnonymousID.json. Because of iOS sandboxing, this value cannot be shared outside of the app’s sandbox.

session_id

I wanted to see if this file contained anything else, so I took a look at a recent iPhone backup on my laptop (after decrypting). That file didn’t include anything else, but I did come across another file, com-facebook-sdk-AppEventsTimeSpent.json, which included:

  • lastSuspendTime
  • numInterruptions
  • sessionID
  • secondsSpentInCurrentSession

The sessionId is included in these requests as well. This is likely used for behavioral tracking.

Coarse Grain Location Data

I could not find an instance where Facebook was gathering my GPS coordinates, even for apps I know to have access to my location (such as Transit App), but they all sent my timezone (both CST and America/Chicago), and of course also sent my IP as part of the request. In other words, by sending any request at all, Facebook knows roughly where my phone is any time I launch or keep in memory one of these apps.

Carrier

Along with each request is my carrier. The fact that they’re getting my IP seems much worse to me, but the recent discovery that most or all of the major US carriers are attaching a unique identifier to all request headers makes me incredibly wary of what else a company as powerful as Facebook could do knowing my carrier.

Event

This end point is all about tracking events, afterall. So each includes an event type, eg MOBILE_APP_INSTALL.

Misc

A key called fb_mobile_launch_source was provided with launch events. My guess is this refers to whether an app was launched directly, via push notification, or with a URL.

I was able to find out which of these apps use ReactNative too. Which is fun.

POST /user_properties

user_unique_id

This is stored in NSUserDefaults, and appears to be much like the anon_id. Given my limited data set, I was unable to determine if this matched any other ID fields.

Custom Data

This contains a bunch of custom data based on the app developer’s implementation.

For example, in a block called custom_data, one app sent:

  • is_old_user
  • has_subsribed
  • has_paid

Another app sent only { "vpn_provider": "primary" }, while a third sent g_numberOfTrackedMetroAreas.

POST /

This is a method for POSTing batches, and the request body contains an array of the above request types. In my limited data set, I found very few apps to be batching requests.

Offending Applications

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but is a list of apps I personally use regularly that I found to be making requests to Facebook. (Let me know if you find others!)

I found this list using Charles for iOS, entering low power mode to minimize noise from background-running apps, launched a whole lot of apps, then looked through the logs. (Note: you must enable SSL proxying for this to work, because Facebook’s SDK uses HTTPS.)

Bundle IDs are below for requests where available.

  • At least one major credit card
  • AirVisual (com.airvisual.airvisual)
  • AmpliFi Client (com.ubnt.amplifi)
  • Belingual (com.beelinguapp.beelinguapp)
  • Belly
  • ChowNow
  • Curb (com.ridecharge.TaxiMagic)
  • FXNOW
  • Garmin Connect (com.garmin.connect.mobile)
  • Happy Cow (com.smoothlandon.happycow)
  • IMDb (com.imdb.imdb)
  • KAYAK (com.kayak.travel)
  • Kindle (com.amazon.Lassen)
  • Launcher
  • Mint (com.mint.internal)
  • Outlook (com.microsoft.office.outlook)
  • Pocket (com.ideashower.ReadItLaterPro)
  • Privacy (com.privacy.paybeta – see 2018-01-02 update)
  • REI
  • Seafood Watch
  • Songkick
  • Spotify
  • Strava (com.strava.stravaride)
  • Stryd (com.athletearchitect.stryd)
  • Tor Browser (com.pentaloop.torbrowser) – note: this made the most requests to Facebook
  • Transit App (com.samvermette.Transit and com.transitapp.transitx)
  • UPS My Choice (com.ups.m.iphone)
  • Vivino Wine Scanner
  • Walk Score
  • White Noise (com.tmsoft.WhiteNoiseLite)
  • Yelp (com.yelp.yelpiphone) – this made a reasonable number of requests to Facebook, but makes an insane number of request to Yelp services when in the background
  • Zoom

I’ll point out that a company called Privacy is a strange one to be giving data willingly to Facebook at their users’ expense. This one was particularly heartbreaking.

Conclusion

As a consumer, this is terrifying. I’ve already reached out to several of the services above, or deleted others from my phone after closing my account.

As an app developer, this is extremely disappointing. Is it worth betraying your users to add a feature you may not need? If the product is free, you’re the product.

As a guy who likes being paid for his work, this should come as a warning. This willingness among the tech community to share (or sell?) data is abhorrent, and people need to start holding companies accountable. I’ve already uninstalled many of these apps, and will discontinue using some services entirely. (Note: I ripped MapBox out of an app when I discovered they were tracking my users’ location even when my app asked the framework to stop.)

And if you think Facebook is the only company lately hoarding data, you are absolutely wrong. In fact, while looking through my request logs, I found far more requests to other services: Crashlytics, app-measurement.com, play.googleapis.com, among others.

However, I’m now even more in love with AdBlocker, and found a new love with Charles Proxy. Also, 1Password and Brave both don’t send any such traffic anywhere; I’m very likely to uninstall all apps I find tracking me and just stick with cookie-less web browsing through 1Password’s 1Browser or Brave.

#privacy #facebook #data #sharing #evil

← Return