Today’s PCMag Security Watch explains why you need to read APP Privacy Policies.

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Accessed on 01 February 2022, 1925 UTC.

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PCMag SecurityWatch
Don’t Give Away Your Info! Read App Privacy Policies
App privacy policies are often long, convoluted, and filled with the kind of legalese that can make your eyelids droop. But they’re important to peruse because they contain information about the kind of personal data you’re giving up when downloading and using an app. When was the last time you read an app’s privacy policy? If you do it every time you download an app, excellent work. If you don’t download many apps anyway, even better. You can’t inadvertently give away information if you don’t download the apps in the first place.In 2021, WhatsApp faced millions of dollars in fines for not providing clear privacy policies in Europe. The fines are linked to GDPR, the privacy regulation for the European Union and European Economic Area. All the more reason to give that particular document a thorough glance.

I recently read the privacy statement for Prequel, a popular app that adds whimsical filters to your selfies. The policy is 6,374 words long, but easy enough to parse. Among other permissions, the app states that by agreeing to their policy, when you interact with the app via social media, you allow the company to access all kinds of valuable information, such as your name, user ID, email address, photos, and videos, gender, and date of birth (if it’s listed on your social media profile), your list of friends and their contact information, people who you follow and who follow you, as well as all the posts and your interactions you make with posts. That’s a lot of information you’re giving up about yourself and your friends, all so you can post a cartoon version of yourself on Instagram. Is it worth it?

Before downloading an app, take these three steps:

Check for a link to a privacy policy page. If you can’t find one, or if you don’t understand what you are reading, stay away. Do not download the app or grant it any permissions on your device.

Read the privacy policy and look closely at what kind of information the app collects. If, for example, a simple calculator app’s policy mentions it collects your health and location information, dump the app and find an alternative.

Find out how the app shares your data. Under what circumstances do they comply with law enforcement requests? What happens to all the info they collect if another company acquires the app? Do they sell your information to third-party advertisers? All this information should be in the app’s privacy policy.

Want to find out how the current apps on your phone handle your privacy? If you’re an iOS user, you can check your device’s App Privacy Report, which gives you an overview of how often apps ask for permission to access your camera, contacts, location, microphone, phones, and more.

Stay vigilant when it comes to your information! Don’t just give it away for access to a free app.

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Do You Need a VPN?

Once an obscure privacy tool, VPNs are mainstream now. Everyone from your favorite Twitch streamers to your trusted tech publications is touting the benefits of using a VPN. But does the average internet user really need one? PCMag senior security analyst Max Eddy breaks down what a VPN is, and whether a VPN is right for you.

A VPN may have a role in your personal privacy toolbox if the following qualifications apply:

  • You’re using a public WiFi network.
    A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel that blocks anyone on the same network from seeing what you’re doing. It’s a must-have if, for example, you’re planning to surf the web using that Starbucks hotspot or connecting to an unfamiliar network at an airport.
  • You want to spoof your location.

    With a VPN, you can connect to a server in a different location and mask your IP address, obscuring your true location. Keep in mind that some sites and services have other means of figuring out where you reside. Advertisers can use browser fingerprinting to track your movements all around the internet.

  • You are torrenting.
    Your traffic is encrypted, so your ISP can’t see what sites you’re visiting or the files you’re downloading. Just know that you can hide specific activity from your ISP, but they may notice you’re using a lot of bandwidth, which will send up red flags and may violate their terms and conditions. Pirating content may also violate your VPN’s terms and conditions, too.
  • You want to unblock streaming content.
    Some streaming services offer different content to different geographic locations, so changing your VPN location could help you watch movies and television that are unavailable in your country. Realize that some streaming services block VPN users, so it may not work.

A VPN won’t do much good against the really bad stuff online, such as malware and phishing. For those threats, we recommend a security suite. A VPN also won’t save you from a hacker getting into your accounts if you’re using the same easy-to-guess password for every login. Sign up for a password manager for better, stronger passwords.

Using a VPN to protect your internet traffic from prying eyes is a good idea, but if the tool is confusing or slows your connection too much—ditch it. There are plenty of other steps you can take to surf safely at home that don’t include a VPN. Revisit VPN software if you find yourself in one of the situations listed above.

Stay safe,

Kim Key
PCMag Security Analyst

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